TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's crown prince has warned of the need to remember World War II "correctly", in a rare foray into an ideological debate as nationalist politicians seek to downplay the country's historic crimes.
In an unusual intervention in the discussion, Naruhito's mild-mannered broadside was being interpreted in some circles as a rebuke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a key figure in the right-wing drive to minimise the institutionalised system of wartime sex slavery.
"Today when memories of war are set to fade, I reckon it is important to look back our past with modesty and pass down correctly the miserable experience and the historic path Japan took from the generation who know the war to the generation who don't," Naruhito said.
The comments, released on Monday on the prince's 55th birthday, come as Mr Abe's controversial views on history roil relations with China and South Korea and cause unease in Washington.
Mr Abe has openly said he wants a more sympathetic telling of the history of the first half of the 20th century, a period marked by brutal expansionism in Asia and warring with China and the West.
The Prime Minister last week appointed a 16-member panel to advise him on a statement he is set to make later this year to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender.
Mr Abe has said he will largely stand by Tokyo's previous apologies but, amid growing anger in China and South Korea over the "comfort women" system, speculation is mounting that he will seek to downplay the issue.
Mainstream historians agree that up to 200,000 women, predominantly from Korea, were forced into sexual slavery during WWII.
Right-wing Japanese insist there is no documentary proof that the Japanese state or its military were involved in the system on the Korean peninsula and reject official guilt. That position, which is hardening, angers South Korea and China.
Both countries will be carefully watching any official pronouncement on the war.
While Japan's newspapers remained staid in their coverage of Naruhito's comments, social media users leapt on them.
"This definitely contains a warning against Shinzo Abe, doesn't it?" tweeted @Kirokuro.
"It is a regular recognition (of history), but these comments by the crown prince stand out because Prime Minister Abe's views on the constitution and history are outrageous," said @kazu-w50.
Asked about his views on war and peace, Naruhito told reporters: "It was very painful that many precious lives were lost, many people suffered and felt deep sorrow in the world including in Japan."
"It is important that we never forget people who died in the war... (and we must) deepen our appreciation for our past so as not to repeat the horrors of war and to foster a love of peace," he said.