Emperor Akihito, in his last appearance as reigning monarch at an annual ceremony marking Japan’s World War Two surrender, expressed “deep remorse” on Wednesday over the conflict, while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed no repeat of the horror of war.
Early in the day, Abe sent a ritual offering to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine for war dead but did not visit out of apparent consideration for ties with South Korea and China.
Past visits by Japanese leaders to the shrine have outraged China and South Korea because it honors 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, along with war dead.
China’s relations with Japan have long been haunted by what Beijing sees as Tokyo’s failure to atone for its occupation of parts of China before and during World War Two, although ties have thawed recently.
Japan occupied Korea from 1910-1945 and bitter memories rankle.
A silver-haired Akihito, 84, who will abdicate next year, spoke at the memorial for war dead after a moment of silence.
“Thinking of the peaceful times that have extended for many years after the war, reflecting on our past and with a feeling of deep remorse, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” said Akihito, who was accompanied by a kimono-clad Empress Michiko.
Akihito has carved out a role as a symbol of peace, democracy and reconciliation during his three decades on the throne, visiting wartime battlefields to pray for the dead of all nationalities.
His remarks on Wednesday echoed those he first spoke on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, which were seen by many liberals and moderate conservatives as a subtle rebuke to Abe, who has said future generations should not have to keep apologizing for the conflict.
“I will humbly face the past and resolutely uphold this promise,” the prime minister said on Wednesday.
In Beijing, the foreign ministry said, “The Yasukuni Shrine enshrines Class A war criminals who were directly responsible for the war of aggression.
“We firmly oppose the wrong practices of the Japanese side,” the ministry said in a statement.
South Korea’s foreign ministry expressed “deep regret” over Abe’s sending of an offering to the shrine.
“Our government urges Japan’s political leaders to show a serious introspection and sincere attitude of self-reflection towards past history,” the ministry said in a statement.
Separately, a group of about 50 conservative Japanese lawmakers including Shinjiro Koizumi, the popular son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who is often spoken of as a future premier, paid their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine.
Ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Masahiko Shibayama, who made the offering on Abe’s behalf, said the prime minister asked him to pray for the souls of the departed and that Abe regretted being unable to pay his respects in person.
Abe has only visited the shrine in person once since taking office in 2012.
That December 2013 visit angered China and South Korea and prompted an expression of disappointment from ally the United States. Since then, he has sent offerings on Aug. 15 and Yasukuni’s twice-yearly festivals.
Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, in whose name Japanese fought World War Two, stopped visiting Yasukuni after the wartime leaders were first honored by the shrine in 1978, and Akihito does not pay his respects there.