The government, which long evaded questions about Japan's World War II guilt, has been tendering apologies lately in what analysts say is an effort to lay groundwork for a limited military role overseas.
On May 28, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu gave visiting Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney his "apologies for the unbearable suffering and pains that were caused by the Japanese state against the Canadian people."That followed a major policy speech in Singapore earlier in the month in which Kaifu noted the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor raid.
The prime minister expressed "our sincere contrition at Japanese past actions" in the Asia-Pacific region.
In contrast to the Mulroney apology and one demanded - and received - last year by visiting South Korean President Roh Tae-woo, the Singapore statement was unsolicited.
Japan's memory of World War II has always been selective. School textbooks and politicians alike tend to bury the question of Japan's aggression. Japanese often cast their country as a mere victim.
In his speech, Kaifu challenged accusations that Japan has not owned up to its wartime deeds. He said the Japanese are deeply conscious of their past and pledge never again to become a military threat, hoping only "to play an appropriate role in the political sphere as a nation of peace."
Analysts say the government is seeking to pave the way for renewed plans to form a peacekeeping force under U.N. auspices. A similar proposal was defeated in parliament last year under harsh criticism by pacifists and other Asian nations.
In addition, Japan hopes to avert a U.S. backlash as the Dec. 7 Pearl Harbor anniversary approaches, exacerbating already tense relations.
Kaifu's comments represent a sharp departure from the past in a culture where old shames are hidden away rather than publicly flagellated in the manner of Western-style guilt.