TOKYO (AFP) - Japan marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on Saturday under criticism from neighbours China and South Korea which said nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's speech failed to properly apologise for Tokyo's past aggression.
In a move likely to further strain relations, a pair of cabinet ministers visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which neighbouring countries see as an ugly symbol of Tokyo's militarist past.
Memorial services on the day Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945 come after Abe on Friday delivered a closely watched war anniversary speech that expressed regret but also said future generations need not apologise for Japan's war record.
His remarks were welcomed by the United States but blasted by China as a non-apology, while North Korea derided it as "an unpardonable mockery of the Korean people".
South Korean President Park Geun Hye said his speech "left much to be desired" and stressed the need for Japan to resolve the issue of Asian women forced to work as sex slaves for the military in Japanese wartime brothels.
In a speech for Saturday's war commemorations, Emperor Akihito said he felt "profound remorse" over the conflict Tokyo fought in the name of his father Hirohito.
Some Japanese media said it was the first time the 81-year-old had used those words at an annual memorial marking Japan's surrender in 1945.
Earlier, Haruko Arimura, minister in charge of women's empowerment, entered the gates of the Yasukuni shrine dedicated to millions of Japanese who died in conflicts - but also including more than a dozen war criminals' names on its honour list and a museum that paints Japan as a victim of US aggression.
It makes scant reference to the extreme brutality of invading Imperial troops when they stormed through Asia - especially China and Korea - in the 20th century.
About 60 politicians, including Sanae Takaichi, minister for internal affairs and communications, walked down the shrine's stone path on Saturday morning.
"How we console the souls (of war victims) is a matter for individual countries - it should not be a diplomatic issue," Takaichi told reporters, responding to questions about a possible negative reaction from Beijing and Seoul.
- 'Apology season' -
The visits every August 15 enrage neighbouring nations, which view them as an insult and a painful reminder of Tokyo's past aggression, including a brutal 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula.
The grandson of a wartime cabinet minister, Abe will not visit the leafy Yasukuni shrine on Saturday and sent a ritual offering instead, local media reported.
His late 2013 visit drew an angry response from Beijing and Seoul, as well as rebuke from close ally Washington.
Founded in 1869, the Shinto shrine honours some 2.5 million citizens who died in World War II and other conflicts, along with 14 indicted war criminals including General Hideki Tojo, who authorised the attack on Pearl Harbour, drawing the United States into the war.
Japan's wartime history has come under a renewed focus since Abe swept into power in late 2012, and much speculation had focused on whether he would follow a landmark 1995 statement issued by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama.
The so-called Murayama Statement, which became a benchmark for subsequent apologies, expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" for the "tremendous damage" inflicted, particularly in Asia.
But on Friday, Abe - who has been criticised for playing down Japan's war record and trying to expand its present-day military - said future generations of should not have to apologise for the past.
"We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise," he said.
He also reiterated his desire to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, possibly early next month. His speech made specific reference to the suffering of Chinese people at hands of Japanese soldiers.
Analysts said Abe was treading a fine line by appealing to allies and neighbours while sticking to his nationalist roots.
"It was a clever message that includes everything," said Haruko Sato, a professor at Osaka University and expert on Japan-China relations.
But "his pledge to stop future generations from making repeated apologies appears to be what he really has in his mind".
The Global Times newspaper, closely tied to the Chinese Communist Party, said the contradictory nature of Abe's speech meant "what is left may be basically nothing".
"The speech will not trigger a worsening of Sino-Japanese ties, nor will it help to significantly improve the relations," it said.
Japan has seen little in the way of a national reckoning over the conflict or blame thrust upon wartime emperor Hirohito, unlike in Germany where fault was heaped on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
"No German chancellor would say 'It's been a long time, the apology season will end soon'", said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.