TOKYO (AFP) - An expert panel advising Japan's nationalist prime minister on a highly sensitive statement about World War II has run into disagreement over how to describe Tokyo's wartime military action.
The latest tussle in the ideological battle between Japan's nationalist right-wing and its liberal mainstream saw the committee of academics, journalists and business leaders split on the use of the word "aggression", according to minutes released on Monday.
For Tokyo's neighbours - its wartime adversaries - the term is a crucial marker of Japan's acceptance of its wrongdoing in the 1930s and 1940s as it marched across Asia, leaving millions dead in its wake.
While many Japanese accept the global narrative that their country was an aggressor in the conflict, right-wingers insist Tokyo's war was largely defensive and intended to liberate Asia from Western colonialists.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to make his statement later this year on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
His language is being closely watched by China and South Korea for any signs of backsliding by Japan.
Beijing and Seoul vociferously argue that Tokyo has not properly atoned for its actions in the 1930s and 1940s, and does not fully accept its guilt, insisting that a landmark 1995 statement expressing remorse must stand.
In the panel's March 13 meeting, acting chairman Shinichi Kitaoka, president of the International University of Japan, said the displacement of European powers was an unintended consequence of Tokyo's invasion of China and other nations.
"As a result of Japan's war in the 1930s through to 1945, many Asian countries became independent... but I think it is wrong to say that Japan fought the war for the emancipation of Asian countries," he said, according to the minutes.
"Japan caused many casualties in Asia in its reckless warring."
But a panel member, whose name was not recorded in the document, said it was wrong to retrospectively apply values and definitions, citing a 1974 United Nations ruling on the meaning of the word "aggression" in the international context.
"I sometimes wonder whether it is right to determine 'that war was aggression,' relying on a definition promulgated later," the member said.
Another contributor said the war in the Asian theatre was qualitatively different from that in Europe, insofar as there was no systematic attempt to exterminate a people.
"It should be clearly stated that Japan never prosecuted a Holocaust-type of war... Japan's war was an imperialist war," the panellist said, adding there was no internationally accepted legal definition of "aggression".
Beijing estimates that around 20 million Chinese died during the Sino-Japanese conflict.
In 1995, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama said Japan felt "deep remorse" and offered a "heartfelt apology" for its "colonial rule and aggression".
A 2005 statement by premier Junichiro Koizumi adopted the same phrase, but nationalist Abe has indicated he may soften the wording, while "largely" using past language.
Abe is a standard bearer for Japanese conservatives who want a more sympathetic view of the war, and who emphasise civilian losses in the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as evidence of the injustices Japan suffered.
The premier's equivocation on history, as well as his support for the Yasukuni shrine - where convicted war criminals are among those honoured - infuriates Asian neighbours, and tests the nerves of key ally the United States.