Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stopped short of offering a fresh apology for World War II transgressions by his country on Friday, during a highly anticipated speech on the anniversary of Japan's surrender.
He expressed "utmost grief" for the suffering caused by Japan, but said that future generations should not have to keep apologising for the country's past mistakes, Reuters reported.
The statement was closely watched by China, parts of which were occupied by Japan before and during World War Two, and South Korea, where bitter memories of Japan's 1910-1945 colonisation of the country persist.
Former Japanese leader Tomiichi Murayama gave a “heartfelt apology” for Japan’s wartime conduct in 1995. The statement was repeated by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi ten years later. And another ten years later, Abe also said he upheld past official apologies including Murayama's, but offered nothing new.
In a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, he said, "Our country inflicted immeasurable damage and suffering on innocent people."
“History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone. Each and every victim had his or her life, dreams, and beloved family. When I squarely contemplate this obvious fact, even now, I find myself speechless and my heart is rent with the utmost grief."
However, Abe insisted future generations should not be forced to keep apologising for wartime atrocities.
"In Japan, the post-war generations now exceed 80 per cent of the population. We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come - who have nothing to do with that war - be forced to apologise," he said.
"Still, even so, we Japanese - across generations - must squarely face the history of the past."
There had been much controversy in the months leading up to the statement as Abe has been accused by critics of playing down the dark side of Japan's wartime past.
Japan's NHK public TV reported two days ago that Abe's statement would contain the words "apology," "deep remorse," "aggression" and "colonial rule," without giving any further details.
Abe did use the word “aggression” to describe Japan's past deeds, promising that the country would “never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes,” according to the official English translation of his statement reported by the Guardian.
“We shall abandon colonial rule for ever and respect the right of self-determination of all peoples throughout the world,” he said.
Neighbors not impressed
Analysts have said that Abe was trying to strike a balance between satisfying nationalist supporters in his country who reject further apologies and maintaining ties with China.
No official reactions were forthcoming from Beijing or Seoul immediately following the speech, but this initial silence concerning the statement suggests he could not satisfy the expectations of Japan's neighbours, where bitter memories of Japan's wartime misdeeds run deep.
China's official Xinhua news agency said the "tuned-down apology is not of much help in eliminating Tokyo's trust deficit," just after Abe's speech.
"Instead of offering an unambiguous apology, Abe's statement is rife with rhetorical twists like 'maintain our position of apology', dead giveaways of his deep-rooted historical revisionism, which has haunted Japan's neighbourhood relations," the commentary continued.
South Korea's Yonhap News also stressed that the PM had made no new apology, while many South Koreans said they do not believe Abe's words were sincere and were not backed by his actions.
"I think it is ambiguous to say there is progress just because he used the word 'apology' [in the statement]. I also think he just made a seeming statement because the act he has been showing until now doesn't reflect a true apology and regrets at all," 23-year-old Shin Jae-gyeom told Reuters after listening to the speech.
Other critics of the speech brought up the issue of comfort women, who were forced to work in brothels run by the Japanese military during the war, saying Japan has not done enough to atone for their suffering. Abe made no direct reference to those girls and women in his statement, other than by saying, "We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honour and dignity were severely injured."
South Korea insists on compensation together with apologies for Japan's war crimes, but Japanese government says the issue was settled in the normalisation agreement signed between the countries in 1965.
At home, nationalists - who reject what they see as a humiliating cycle of apologies - were also not happy with Abe's statement. A rightwing group rallied outside the prime minister's office in Tokyo and called on Abe to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where many Japanese war victims are buried, Reuters reported. The shrine is seen by many as a symbol of Japan's past militarism because it also honours wartime leaders convicted of being war criminals by an Allied tribunal .