Malaysia's leader stunned Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on Saturday by declaring that Tokyo should stop apologizing for World War II and start being a world leader in keeping the peace.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad leapt headfirst into a roiling domestic debate in Japan, embarrassing his guest by highlighting major policy differences within Murayama's ruling coalition."I don't understand why Japan continues to apologize for things that happened 50 years ago," Mahathir told Murayama, according to Japanese officials.
Mahathir rejected calls by many Asians for compensation from Japan for events that occurred during World War II.
"If you start seeking compensation for things that happened 50 years ago, then what about 100 years ago or 200 years ago?" Ma-ha-thir said. "It could turn into demands for compensations from colonial powers."
Murayama had no response. Japanese officials said he simply let Mahathir move on to his next subject.
At an evening banquet, the Malaysian leader told Murayama that "as a major player in the international arena, Japan must be prepared for peacekeeping duties directly."
Murayama responded only indirectly with a promise that Japan intends to carry out "international contributions."
The reason for Murayama's silence was no secret: Whatever answer he gave would anger a large bloc in the ruling coalition.
Had he agreed with Mahathir that Japan should quit apologizing for the war, he would have angered legislators in his own Socialist party who have spent decades in pacifist causes.
And since many conservatives in Murayama's coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party, concur with Mahathir's views, Murayama was in no position to disagree either.
Mahathir also got no response to his call for Japan to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Most Liberal Democrats support the idea, but many of Murayama's allies think Japan isn't ready for the responsibility yet.
Malaysia, a fast-growing country of 18 million people, is Mura-ya-ma's third stop on a four-nation Southeast Asia tour that has taken him to the Philippines and Vietnam. He flies to Singapore on Sunday.
Japanese officials billed the trip as a chance for Japan to promote itself as a major political player in Southeast Asia. But Vietnamese leaders were mainly interested in getting more Japanese economic aid and investment.
Mahathir also exposed the weakness of Japan's "focus on Asia" policy by bringing up his proposed East Asian economic discussion group, which would exclude the United States.
Fearful of offending Japan's closest ally, Murayama was cool to the idea.