Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu expressed "sincere contrition" Friday for the "unbearable suffering and sorrow" Japan inflicted on "a great many" fellow Asians in World War II.

Offering other Asians words they have waited nearly 50 years to hear, Kaifu made Japan's equivalent of gestures German leaders made to fellow Europeans more than a decade ago.He took the occasion of a major foreign policy speech in Singapore to utter the first unequivocal apology a Japanese head of government has ever offered for his country's wartime atrocities, the indispensable first step toward clearing away bitterness that lingers in the region.

It is a step that has been urged upon Kaifu and his predecessors repeatedly by Western allies who have long seen Asian countries' bitter memories of Japanese occupation as a central obstacle to any full role in international affairs for a country that is now the world's No. 2 economic power.

As the prime minister spoke, a flotilla of minesweepers crossed Southeast Asian waters en route to the Persian Gulf, where they will take up the first overseas mission, except training, by any Japanese forces since World War II, the product of a nine-month debate on how this country could join the gulf effort without abandoning its postwar pacifism.

"The Japanese people," Kaifu said, "are firmly resolved never again to repeat those actions which had tragic consequences."

Then, turning to an issue many Asian leaders see as a key test of Japan's sincerity, he vowed to "ensure that today's young people - tomorrow's leaders - gain a full and accurate understanding of modern and contemporary Japanese history through their education in schools and in society at large."

For more than two decades, many Asians have bitterly denounced the whitewashing of Imperial Army atrocities in Japanese textbooks and the Ministry of Education's systematic censorship of any attempts at unvarnished retelling of that period.