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JAPAN DEEPLY DIVIDED OVER MILITARISM OF PAST

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Nearly half a century after the end of World War II, Japan has yet to put the conflict to rest.

Marking the 49th anniversary of Japan's surrender on Monday, the country remains deeply divided over accountability for past militarism and Japan's future international role.On Sunday, the anniversary's eve, a Cabinet minister resigned after causing a furor by stating that Japan's wartime occupation of Asian nations - historically acknowledged as brutal - had benefited those countries.

Controversy was also brewing over scheduled anniversary visits by Cabinet officials to a shrine where Japan's war dead are worshiped as deities.

Shin Sakurai, who stepped down as head of the Environment Agency, was the second Cabinet minister since May to be forced out over remarks about Japan's wartime role. In May, Justice Minister Shigeto Nagano quit under fire after calling the notorious 1937 massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanking by Japanese soldiers a fabrication.

The resignations reflected a recurring pattern in Japan - one that underscores its ambivalence about the war.

On the one hand, some leaders - including current Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and his predecessor, Morihiro Hosokawa - have expressed deep regret over suffering of the country's Asian neighbors.

On the other hand, a small but vocal minority believes Japan's wartime cause was just and that it has nothing to apologize for, although the war cost the lives of 3 million Japanese and 17 million other Asians.

"All Japanese were willing to fight to the last man because justice was on our side," says Futachinosuke Nagoshi, 71, a professor of American literature. "We were going to drive the white man from Asia."

Aug. 15, the surrender anniversary, is dreaded by Japanese leaders as a day of inevitable controversy. This year is no exception.

Murayama, the first Socialist prime minister in a generation, whose party has traditionally been ardently pacifist, ordered members of his coalition Cabinet to keep away from Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary date.

The shrine, dedicated to warriors who died in the name of the emperor, has a museum glorifying the Japanese war effort, including an exhibit of kamikaze aircraft.

Despite Murayama's order, at least eight Cabinet members have announced plans to visit the shrine as private citizens. Officials estimate 100,000 people will pay homage at the shrine on Monday.

Official visits to the shrine are criticized by those who believe they send the wrong message to neighbors like South Korea and China, which have strongly protested comments like those of Sakurai and Nagano.

Conflicting views of the war still strongly color public debate over a wide spectrum of issues.

They include the role of Japan's military under the country's pacifist postwar constitution; Japan's aspirations to diplomatic leadership, including a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council; reparations for war victims, including Asian women conscripted as Imperial Army sex slaves; and how Japan's textbooks should treat the country's wartime history.

At times, debate over what really happened in the war can translate into a yearning for older, simpler values, some experts say.

"Older Japanese sometimes want to restore what they've been denied," says Kosaku Yoshino, a sociologist. "That includes the moral teachings they learned as children, such as respect for teachers and personal discipline."

For many aging veterans of the war, the belief in the rightness of Japan's wartime cause is unshakable. And they say their visits to Yasukuni are a commitment they will honor for life.