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Japan remembers WWII surrender

But critics say nation must own up to brutal past

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TOKYO — Throughout most of the year, Tokyo's Peaceful Country Shrine remains true to its name; it is a quiet, wooded sanctuary that offers respite from the crowds and concrete of Japan's bustling capital.

But every summer, this shrine honoring Japan's war dead — including World War II leaders — becomes a battlefield for those who claim it symbolizes the desire to placate the souls of fallen soldiers, and those who see it as proof of the country's refusal to own up to its brutal past.

As Japan observed the 55th anniversary of its World War II surrender on Tuesday, the battle raged once more.

To mark the anniversary, nearly a dozen members of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's Cabinet, Tokyo's governor and scores of conservative lawmakers visited the Yasukuni Shrine, bowing deeply before its curtain-obscured altar to offer their prayers.

In either public or private capacities, Japanese politicians have made similar trips for decades to Yasukuni, where the names, dates and place of death in battle are preserved on record books for 2.5 million war dead dating back to the late 19th century.

Each time, the visits have met a barrage of criticism because among those enshrined are Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and six other World War II war criminals.

Opponents of the visits say it is no more appropriate for Japan's leaders to offer prayers there than it would be for German leaders to pay respects at a Nazi graveyard.

Supporters say that to not offer prayers at Yasukuni, built in 1869 at the order of Emperor Meiji, would be an insult to all of those who died in war — and the powerful political lobby made up of their survivors.

Frequently under fire for hawkish statements since assuming office in June, Mori chose to stay away from the shrine altogether Tuesday.

Though politically expedient, Mori's choice was not likely to ease concerns from Japan's neighbors that this country's leaders are trying to whitewash, if not glorify, the past.

"Japan has ceaselessly committed crimes of adding pains to the wounds of the Korean people by scheming cunningly and shamelessly to avoid responsibility for apology and compensation," said an article Monday in North Korea's Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of its ruling Worker's Party.

China and South Korea have also strongly protested past Yasukuni visits.

Emperor Akihito, Meiji's great-grandson, has not made a Yasukuni visit. On Tuesday, he and Mori paid their respects at an official memorial ceremony held at a hall just down the street from the shrine.

"I offer heartfelt condolences to those who died on the battlefields and fell victim to the war, and pray for world peace," Akihito told an audience of 7,000 at the Budokan hall, a center of martial arts training.

Akihito's father, the late Emperor Hirohito, was not so squeamish about visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

Hirohito, in whose name the war was waged, visited the shrine eight times, the final visit in 1975.

As a measure of just how difficult it remains for many Japanese to face the past, Hirohito's wartime role remains an almost taboo issue, even though more than a decade has passed since his death in 1989.

Despite the consensus in Japan that Hirohito was removed from the day-to-day affairs of the wartime government, a book due out later this month by Herbert Bix, a respected American historian, claims Hirohito knew of Pearl Harbor in advance and took a far more active interest in how the war was waged than previously believed.

The book further contends that Hirohito and leaders of the U.S. Occupation forces worked together to shelter him from accountability. That legacy continues to cloud Japan's ability to accept its responsibility for the war, the book suggests.

Though previews of the book have been out for three months, it has received virtually no coverage here.

Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a noted Japanese historian at Tokyo's Chuo University, said he has heard of Bix's book, but has not yet read it.

The topic is not one the Japanese media generally likes to explore, Yoshimi said.

"They do not want to talk about that kind of thing because it leads to the question of war responsibility," he said.

But while many Japanese may prefer not to look at the former emperor in a critical light, for the younger generation the problem is increasingly a simple lack of interest.

"Personally, I think that if someone wants to visit the shrine, let him," said 28-year-old Rei Aritake, who works at a Tokyo publishing house. "I was born after the war, and it just doesn't interest me."

In Thailand, they also remembered the war dead.

About 450 Australian, British and Dutch visitors paid their respects Tuesday at a World War II cemetery near the bridge on the River Kwai, part of the infamous "Death Railway" that the Japanese army built using Allied prisoners of war and Asian slave labor.

About 50 Japanese tourists also visited the cemetery, to learn what Japanese textbooks do not tell them — the unspeakable record of the Japanese Imperial army during its brutal occupation of Southeast Asia.

Some 13,000 Allied prisoners of war and up to 100,000 Asian slave laborers died of disease, starvation and torture while building the 256-mile "Death Railway" supply line between Bangkok and Rangoon.