Japan Teeters between Apology and Denial Many Japanese Today Choose to Insulate Themselves from the Brutalities Inflicted by Their Fathers, Husbands, and Brothers during World War II. Some Resent That Their Country Is Being Asked to Apologize, Insisting That the Military Did No Wrong. Others 'Fight the Lonely Struggle' to Tell What Really Happened More Than 50 Years Ago

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FOR most countries involved in World War II, this 50th anniversary year has been a time of reverence and commemoration. Heroes have been remembered and sacrifices honored.

For the Japanese, 1995 has been something different - perhaps not a Year of Shame, but certainly a year of being made to feel extremely uncomfortable.

Since 1990, people who were abused and degraded by the Japanese military in Asia during World War II have been filing lawsuits here demanding contrition and compensation. The 50th anniversary of the war's end has provided them with an opportunity to reiterate these claims and initiate new ones.

In court hearings and in front of the media, these victims of the Japanese war effort have unearthed grim memories. A British veteran has described his time as a prisoner of the Japanese: pitiful rations, unrelenting labor, and beatings with hammers. A group of Chinese sent to Japan as forced laborers has recounted how more than 100 of their countrymen were starved to death after their rebellion.

Korean women coerced by the military into sexual servitude have unveiled their humiliations.

At least 24 lawsuits are pending in Japanese courts, and lawyers report that more are on the way.

The claimants confront a country steeped in a lingering sense of irresolution about the war. Writers and academics have debated the issue of "war responsibility" for decades, but to no firm conclusions. Japanese still disagree about the historical record, about why the country went to war, even about what the war should be called.

Many Japanese have insulated themselves from the brutalities inflicted by their fathers, husbands, and brothers, not wanting to dishonor their memory. Others resent being asked to apologize, arguing that other nations have committed crimes for which they have not been called upon to repent. Still others insist the military did no wrong.

These forces of denial are strong, but they do not go unchallenged.

Some Japanese - war veterans, writers, ordinary people - are educating themselves and others about the realities of this nation's war record. These individuals are "fighting a lonely struggle," as one playwright puts it. But thanks to their efforts and to the recently

publicized accounts of the war victims, more and more Japanese are learning a history of the war that diverges from the once-over-lightly version taught in Japanese schools.

Says Hitotsubashi University's Hiroshi Tanaka, "An increasing number of Japanese have come to understand the facts."

Even the government, in this anniversary year, is sounding more respectful of the claims of the war victims. One example is a document issued last month asking Japanese to contribute to a government-sponsored atonement fund to benefit former sex slaves: "No manner of apology can ever completely heal the deep wound inflicted on these women both emotionally and physically," concluded the prominent private citizens who are the fund's directors. "Yet we should, by whatever means, do our best to appreciate their pain and make the greatest possible effort to salve their suffering in any way we can.

"We believe the obligation to do so hangs heavy over Japan, the country that inflicted the suffering."

This appeal comes from a government that until 1992 denied that the military had ever maintained brothels or coerced women into prostitution.

The debate over war responsibility and compensation is, of course, in large measure about history. But it is also about what sort of a nation Japan will become. Many thinkers and politicians proclaim that the Japanese must recast their nation and break out of the postwar mind-set of the past 50 years.

This argument is intertwined with questions about the power that Japan should wield in the world. Should it have a military commensurate with its economic might and conduct foreign policy, as so many other nations do, backed by bombers and aircraft carriers? …