TOKYO • Japanese Emperor Akihito marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II yesterday with an expression of "deep remorse" over the conflict, a departure from his annual script which could be seen as a subtle rebuke of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Mr Abe last Friday expressed "utmost grief", but said future generations should not have to keep apologising for the mistakes of the past.
The Prime Minister offered no fresh apology of his own.
"Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated," Emperor Akihito, 81, said at a memorial service on the anniversary of the day his father, Emperor Hirohito, announced Japan's defeat.
"Together with all of our people, I now pay my heartfelt tribute to all those who lost their lives in the war, both on the battlefields and elsewhere, and pray for world peace and for the continuing development of our country."
The legacy of the war still haunts relations with China and South Korea, which suffered under Japan's sometimes brutal occupation and colonial rule before Tokyo's defeat in 1945.
The soft-spoken Emperor Akihito has often urged Japan not to forget the suffering of the war and tried to promote reconciliation with Asian countries.
He had expressed remorse before, but not at the annual service. The Japanese Constitution bans the emperor from any political role, so Emperor Akihito's remarks need to be carefully nuanced.
"The Emperor's words reflect his own will," said political science professor Koichi Nakano of Sophia University. "Mr Abe argues that the United States-Japan alliance and its power of deterrence ensured peace after the war, but by stressing the role of pacifism the Emperor seems to disagree."
Yesterday, Mr Abe sent a ritual cash offering to the Yasukuni war shrine, seen in China and South Korea as a symbol of Tokyo's wartime militarism.
While Mr Abe, who has said he wants to repair ties with China and South Korea, did not visit Yasukuni in person, three of his Cabinet ministers did, along with the ruling party's policy chief Tomomi Inada and other conservative lawmakers.
Such visits outrage China and South Korea because the shrine honours 14 Class A war criminals along with the war dead.
In 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, then Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" over Japan's "colonial rule" and "aggression" in what has come to be known as the Murayama Statement.
The 91-year-old dismissed Mr Abe's statement as meaningless.
"It did not deny (the Murayama Statement) nor adhere to it," Mr Murayama told reporters.
"He should not have issued the statement in the first place," Asahi Shimbun quoted him as saying.
"It was hard to understand what he was trying to get at since the focus of his address was blurred."
China and South Korea have criticised Mr Abe for failing in his statement to properly apologise for Tokyo's past aggression.
But the US, Japan's top ally, welcomed Mr Abe's commitment to uphold apologies made in the past.
Washington approves of the Premier's plans to play a greater security role in Asia in the face of a rising China, but also wants a lessening of tensions over history.