TOKYO, Aug 15 – Japan expressed remorse Saturday for its actions in World War II on the anniversary of its 1945 defeat but two former premiers visited a controversial war shrine seen as a symbol of its past militarism.
Prime Minister Taro Aso and Emperor Akihito, whose father Hirohito surrendered exactly 64 years ago, attended a memorial service in Tokyo and expressed sorrow for the suffering the nation had caused.
"Our nation inflicted significant damage and pain on many countries, especially on people in Asian countries," Aso said during the nationally broadcast service.
"On behalf of our people, I express deep remorse and humble condolences for all of the people who fell victim," Aso told the ceremony attended by 5,000 people, mostly elderly veterans and bereaved families.
Emperor Akihito said: "I profoundly express my condolences… with my sincere hope that such war sufferings will never be repeated."
But amid Japan’s efforts to own up to its wartime aggression former prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honours some 2.5 million Japanese war dead including 14 leading war criminals.
Koizumi’s 2001-2006 premiership was beset by tensions with China and South Korea, which accused him of condoning militarism by visiting the shrine every year.
Abe, Koizumi’s successor who had avoided the shrine while he was prime minister, made his second straight annual visit Saturday.
"Today, I made a visit here to share respect and veneration for spirits of the war dead," Abe told reporters.
Aso has indicated he will stay away from the shrine, although consumer affairs minister Seiko Noda was expected to visit. Last year three ministers, including Noda, visited the shrine.
Ahead of the August 30 national election, some 40 conservative politicians also made a pilgrimage to the shrine.
Japan’s opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama, widely tipped to become the next prime minister, expressed his condolences for those who lost their lives in the war, while staying away from the shrine.
"It is our responsibility and duty to establish peace by facing history so that we will neither forget about the bitter and mindless war nor repeat the tragedy," Hatoyama said in a statement.
Emperor Hirohito, who was revered as divine and had never spoken to the public before, went on the radio on August 15, 1945 to announce Japan had to "bear the unbearable" and surrender as its cities lay in ruins, two of them struck by US nuclear bombs.
Under bright sunshine Saturday, many Japanese veterans and their families worshipped at the Yasukuni shrine, where right-wing activists also congregated.
"I came here for the first time as I feel younger generations should take over the respect for the war dead," said Masatoshi Kawano, 19, wearing a traditional kimono with a Japanese "Rising Sun" national flag in his hand.
"Individuals — soldiers or ordinary people — should not be blamed," Kawano said. "It was a tough time for everyone. All of them were the victims of the war."
Kenji Hata, 66, said: "No matter what other countries say, it is our duty to respect those who devoted their lives to the country. We can’t help but say any criticism against a visit to Yasukuni is an interference in domestic affairs."