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‘You Don’t Need To Be Sorry. It Was Country Against Country’

September 1, 1995

HONOLULU (AP) _ The old Japanese gentleman has been here before.

The first time, as a 20-year-old, Takeshi Maeda dropped from the clouds with a one-ton torpedo, a bomber pilot bearing down on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. battleship West Virginia.

Now he’s back _ gray and shuffling, and still officially uninvited.

Maeda’s presence at a privately sponsored gathering of U.S. and Japanese veterans underscores the near-absence of an official Japanese role in the commemoration of the day, 50 years ago Saturday, when Japan signed the surrender ending World War II.

For Maeda, spending time with old enemies is reward in itself.

``I don’t represent all Japan,″ he said. ``I’m just here to maintain old friendships with U.S. veterans. I’m no diplomat or politician.″

In fact, while the former Imperial Navy pilot was planning his return to Pearl Harbor, diplomats and politicians in Tokyo and Washington were busy laying their own plans to keep government-to-government encounters to a minimum.

Not until last week did the Japanese announce that their defense minister would lead a tiny official delegation to Honolulu for this weekend’s observances. The delegation will melt into a handful of other foreign representatives with no active role in the U.S.-organized events.

``They’ll sit in the stands and watch the parades go by,″ explained one U.S. military organizer, speaking on condition he not be named.

This year of remembrance _ of events that included the U.S. atomic bombing of two Japanese cities _ has been difficult for both countries.

Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama took a significant step Aug. 15, issuing a cautiously worded statement expressing a ``heartfelt apology″ for Japanese wrongs in the war. But the prospect of an active Japanese role in the Honolulu events _ where speeches could be misinterpreted, meetings with President Clinton prove awkward, and veterans turn resentful _ apparently looked potentially too embarrassing to both sides.

At one point earlier this year, the authoritative Tokyo newspaper Asahi Shimbun said the Japanese government had quietly asked Washington not to be invited to the commemoration. The anniversary might ``bring about some emotional reaction ... in Japan or the United States,″ Japan’s Washington ambassador told U.S. reporters.

Speaking privately, Japanese officials make clear they want to quickly get past the final anniversary and look ahead to President Clinton’s November visit to Tokyo.

But Takeshi Maeda is not afraid to look back.

The torpedo he dropped from his Nakajima bomber that ``day of infamy,″ Dec. 7, 1941, helped sink the West Virginia at its Pearl Harbor berth. A half-century later, he met one of the battleship’s survivors, Marine bugler Richard Fiske.

``I told Mr. Fiske I was sorry I hit the West Virginia,″ Maeda said. ``But he said, `You don’t need to be sorry. Individuals weren’t responsible. It was country against country.′

``That’s the human part of what we’re doing,″ said the 74-year-old retired engineer.

Fiske is on hand this weekend, too, and he has some thoughts about the dark feelings that can still cloud relations between two countries.

``I think President Clinton and the Japanese prime minister ought to get together and sit down with a bunch of vets from both sides and talk it over,″ Fiske said. ``I think that’d be great.″

But, as it is, the assembled Japanese and Americans will have only themselves to talk to. After Clinton leaves town on Sunday, they will assemble for symbolic handshakes and reminiscences via a platoon of interpreters.

The meeting is sponsored by the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii and other ``friendship″ organizations.

``Some people may still feel some hostility,″ said Juri Yoshida, a former Zero fighter pilot and one of 200 Japanese veterans here for the event. ``But I believe that friendship cures all hate and misunderstanding.″

Many of his old American foes seem to agree. Hundreds of U.S. veterans, many more than organizers expected, are planning to jam the event, men willing to make an open show of forgiveness and reconciliation when their governments cannot.

Then, on Monday, they will trek up to the green slopes above Honolulu, to the national cemetery and the graves of fallen comrades, and dedicate U.S.-Japanese friendship plaques.

The old boy bugler Fiske will play his part, blowing the soldier’s dirge ``Taps″ on his horn, in both American and Japanese versions.