TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe risks further alienating Asian neighbors China and South Korea if he does not stick to the substance of a 1995 apology for wartime aggression, the man who issued the landmark statement two decades ago said on Tuesday.
Former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, a socialist, was head of an unwieldy coalition with the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) when he made the "heartfelt apology" for the wartime damage and suffering caused by Japan. Abe, then a rookie LDP lawmaker, was one of those who opposed the move.
Now premier for a second time, Abe's conservative agenda includes adopting a less apologetic tone toward the past and revising the post-war, pacifist constitution.
Abe has said he intends to uphold past apologies, including Murayama's, but has signaled he wants to issue a forward-looking statement in his own words.
"If you listen to what Mr. Abe has said so far...it appears he wants to water down the facts of the past somewhat," Murayama told Reuters at the headquarters of the tiny Social Democratic Party, successor to the Socialist Party he once led.
"Depending on the content, this could reap the mistrust of Asia and the world," Murayama said. "There is great concern (overseas) that Japan is diluting its remorse toward the past and is lurching to the right. I worry about that."
"It is all right to change the wording, but I want him to avoid mistaking the fundamental attitude and understanding (of the Murayama Statement)."
Abe's anniversary comments will be closely parsed in China and South Korea, where bitter memories of Japan's past militarism run deep, and by Japan's close ally Washington.
Feuds over wartime history as well as territorial rows have frayed Tokyo's ties with Seoul and Beijing in recent years. Sino-Japanese relations have thawed a bit since a leaders' summit last November but ties with Seoul remain frosty.
Abe's apparent reluctance to apologize over the war dates back to his early days as a lawmaker. In June 1995, when parliament's lower house adopted a watered-down resolution of "deep remorse", he was among those who absented themselves.
More recently, he has said there is no internationally agreed upon definition of "war of aggression", raising doubts over whether he will include key phrases from the Murayama document such as "colonial rule" and "aggression" when he makes his own statement.
Murayama, a spry 91-year-old who lives on his lawmaker's pension on Japan's southwestern island of Kyushu and who is famed for his trademark bushy white eyebrows, has retired from politics. But his comments are garnering widespread attention at a time when liberal voices in Japan have become more muted.
Recalling the fraught process of crafting his apology and gaining agreement of conservatives in his cabinet, Murayama said when the statement was read out to his cabinet ministers, there were no remarks at all - neither for nor against.
"I was relieved," he said.
Murayama also expressed concern over what Abe calls his push to "escape the post-war regime" - a legacy of the U.S. occupation that conservatives argue deprived Japan of national pride and weakened traditional mores.
"If you judge overall from what he has said, it seems he feels individual rights have been over-emphasized and public morality has been made light of," Murayama said.
Abe has made clear that his goal is to revise the constitution's pacifist Article 9 but Murayama said that Japan's public would not easily agree to change a clause that he and other proponents say has kept the country at peace since 1945.
"Mr. Abe stresses the dangers in Asia ... and is trying to create an environment for revising the constitution, but the people as a whole will not agree," Murayama said.
Additional reporting by Takashi Umekawa; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan