TOKYO: Japan marked the 68th anniversary of its surrender in World War II with somber ceremonies Thursday and visits by senior politicians to a shrine honoring 2.5 million war dead that remains a galling reminder of its colonial and wartime aggression.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose hawkish views have raised concerns in neighboring China and South Korea, appeared unlikely to visit Yasukuni Shrine, but asked an aide to present an ornamental offering bought with his own money. Two of his Cabinet members, decked out in morning suits, did pay their respects at the shrine Thursday morning.
Instead, Abe joined Emperor Akihito at a ceremony at a nearby indoor arena where they bowed deeply before a backdrop of white and yellow chrysanthemums in paying respects for the war dead.
"I pray for world peace and our country's all-round development," Akihito said.
In the steamy heat of mid-August, the cherry-tree shaded grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine, just to the north of the Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo, seem an unlikely hotbed of provocation.
A shrine of Japan's indigenous Shinto religion, Yasukuni honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including Class A war criminals such as Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister who was executed in 1948, and evokes bitter memories across Asia. The grounds also house a war museum glorifying Japan's wartime past.
Visits by past prime ministers to the shrine have angered Beijing and Seoul. Japan has repeatedly apologized for its wartime actions, but resentments linger, nearly 70 years after Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, issued his proclamation surrendering to Allied forces.
Today, Yasukuni remains a focus of nationalist pride and is closely associated with the monarchy. Akihito visited the shrine in 1975 before he became emperor in 1989.
North and South Korea marked the surrender anniversary Thursday with ceremonies of their own celebrating their independence from Japanese colonization. South Korean President Park Geun-hye urged Japanese leaders to "show brave leadership in healing wounds of the past."
Abe, who took office in December, has said he regrets not visiting Yasukuni on the surrender anniversary during his first, one-year term in 2006-2007.
When asked if he would go this year, he told reporters, "Since it would become a political and diplomatic problem, I cannot tell you that."
Abe's support for revising Japan's pacifist constitution and raising the profile of its military are compounding the unease at a time of rising tensions over a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Japan and China.
Hackles were also raised by the unveiling, earlier this month, of Japan's biggest warship since the end of the war. The Izumo, a flat-top destroyer, shares the same name as a warship in the Imperial Navy that was sunk in an American attack in 1945.
"We call upon the Japanese side to honor their commitment to admit and reflect upon their history of invasion, act with care on relevant questions, and through concrete actions, win the trust of the people of Asian victim nations and international society," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei as saying.
In Seoul, South Korea, women who had been forced to work in wartime brothels of the Japanese army, and their supporters, rallied outside the Japanese Embassy, demanding apologies and compensation.
Abe said he would not order members of his own Cabinet to stay away from Yasukuni on Aug. 15, deeming it "natural to pay respects to the spirits who fought for the people of Japan."
"I think each cabinet member should make their own decision in accordance with their beliefs," he said.