Japan's new emperor followed in his father's footsteps, expressing "deep remorse" for his country's role in World War II as part of an annual ceremony marking its surrender, while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe followed another recent tradition on Thursday — sending an offering to the Yasukuni shrine that honors, among others, some of Japan's most notorious war criminals.
In a speech marking the 74th anniversary of Japan announcing its surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, Emperor Naruhito, who acceded to the throne in May, continued an annual ritual begun by his father, Emperor Akihito, in 2015, by expressing contrition for Japan's central role in the bloodshed.
"Looking back on the long period of postwar peace, reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated," Naruhito said in a speech at Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo against a backdrop of yellow chrysanthemums.
Beginning in the 1930s, Japan embarked on a brutal war of expansion that eventually engulfed much of Asia and led to the deaths of millions. Between 3 million and 10 million Chinese civilians were killed by Japanese forces in a more than decadelong occupation of Chinese Manchuria alone. Korea, which had become a Japanese colony by 1910, was exploited as a pool for conscripted labor, including Korean "comfort women," who were forced to work as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers.
Yasukuni, founded in 1869, honors Japan's war dead including a chief architect of Japan's World War II expansion, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, and more than 1,000 convicted war criminals.
Although Japan's emperors, including Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito — who reigned during World War II and until his death in 1989 — have long refused to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine, Japan's politicians have shown less reluctance. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited several times and Abe went there in 2013.
Thousands of ordinary Japanese also visit the shrine each year.
In recent years, however, Abe has chosen instead to send ritual offerings to the shrine without actually visiting, in deference to the sensitivities of China and South Korea.
In recent weeks, relations between Japan and South Korea have hit a low point, with a tit-for-tat trade dispute that saw Tokyo earlier this week impose export controls on South Korea and Seoul retaliate by removing Japan's most-favored nation trade status.
In South Korea, where the surrender also marks the end of Japanese occupation of the peninsula and is celebrated as a national holiday, President Moon Jae-in on Thursday struck a note of conciliation over the dispute with Japan.
"Only when we work together will we be able to achieve joint growth that is sustainable," Moon said in a nationally televised speech.
"If Japan chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands," Moon added.
Last year, a South Korean court ordered Japanese firms to compensate Koreans who were forced to work for them during World War II, raising tensions between the two U.S. allies.
Tokyo maintains that the issue of compensation was settled in a 1965 agreement to settle property claims after the war, in which Japan offered financial aid to South Korea.
Japanese government sources, quoted by Kyodo, said on Wednesday that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had expressed support for Japan's position.