TOKYO Tokuro Inokuma, a former Imperial Japanese Army soldier, got his first taste of the horrors of war in 1945 when he scrambled to gather up the scattered limbs of his fellow servicemen, blown apart by a U.S. air raid in Japan. He was 16.
One of a dwindling number of World War Two veterans, Inokuma now finds troubling echoes in Tokyo's policy shift away from the pacifist ideals adhered to after 1945.
"I find it quite dangerous ... This is the path we once took," said Inokuma, who fought in China soon after the deadly air strike, and survived two years in concentration camps in the then-Soviet Union following Japan's surrender.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month took a historic step by ending a ban that has kept the military from fighting abroad since 1945. The move has riled China, whose ties with Japan have been frayed by a territorial row over East China Sea islets.
"We have neither killed nor been killed (in battle) for almost 70 years. That's unprecedented. It's important we think hard about that," Inokuma, 85, told Reuters in an interview.
Proponents say Japan needs to be able to exercise its right of collective self-defense, or helping a friendly country under attack, to respond to a tougher security environment.
Critics say the change makes Japan more likely to get sucked into overseas wars.
Teru Hisato, a 91-year-old veteran who lost his right leg to a U.S. incendiary bomb in 1945 when he was guarding military supplies at a railway station in northern Japan, shares those concerns and doubts whether the policy shift makes Japan safer.
"If you raise your fist in response to your opponent's fist-lifting, that only leads to a fight."
Hisato also wants Abe to refrain from visiting Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, seen by critics as a symbol of Tokyo's wartime aggression.
"LET'S MEET AT YASUKUNI"
Abe last December visited the shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted by an Allied tribunal are honored along with war dead. The prime minister said he had done so to pay respect to those who died for their country, not to glorify the war.
Japanese leaders' visits to the shrine anger China and South Korea, where memories of Japan's past militarism run deep.
"I believe he does not need to pay a visit to Yasukuni at the price of ties with China and South Korea, if he hopes for safety and peace of mind of the Japanese people," Hisato said.
Ichimatsu Shimura, 93, who fought the Allies and suffered from malnutrition and bloodsucking leeches on a long retreat through Myanmar's jungles, agrees Abe should not visit Yasukuni again.
"From my unit, 70 or 80 of us came back alive. For years, we got together at Yasukuni because that's where all our friends are enshrined," said Shimura, who still suffers occasional pain from mortar bomb splinters lodged in his head.
"But with the current diplomatic situation as it is, I'm afraid it would be better if he did not go. Going there would only harm Japan's diplomacy," Shimura said.
Abe is expected to send an offering to Yasukuni on the Aug. 15 anniversary of the war's end, but not to visit in person.
Some veterans, though, believe he should go. "I would like him to go for those who died," said Heizo Nagano, 92, who fought U.S. forces in the Philippines. Amid food shortages, he ate tadpoles to become one of 68 survivors from his unit, which started out with more than 1,500 soldiers.
Takehiko Ena, 91, a survivor of two aborted "kamikaze" suicide missions, agrees. On his way to rejoin his unit, he passed through Hiroshima a day after the atomic bomb attack on Aug. 6, 1945, finding himself wading through a sea of bodies.
"We should keep explaining to countries concerned that Japan has vowed not to resort to war again, and that mourning for war dead (at the shrine) should be approved," Ena said.
"'Let's meet at Yasukuni' was what soldiers told each other when they left for battlefields, knowing they won't come back alive. That's where their souls are."
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Linda Sieg and Jeremy Laurence)