In a much-anticipated speech, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his "profound grief" and "sincere condolences" for his country's role in World War II.
But the leader stopped short of renewing apologies extended by his predecessors, and he said he doesn't want future generations to be "predestined to apologize" for the war.
Abe's speech, delivered on live TV on the 70th anniversary of his country's surrender, is being scrutinized by observers both in Japan and in neighboring countries that suffered at the hands of its military – particularly China and South Korea.
As The Korea Herald notes, "Resentment over invasion, occupation and atrocities by the Japanese Imperial Army before and during the war still bedevils relations between Japan and the East Asian countries seven decades after the war ended on Aug. 15, 1945."
That lingering resentment is a main reason why many were closely watching Abe's speech, to see how he far he would go in emulating earlier Japanese leaders who have spelled out Japan's remorse for its aggression and the country's promise to reject colonialism.
Instead of directly apologizing, Abe said:
"I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences."
Abe later said, "Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war." And he added that those expressions "will remain unshakable into the future."
In another part of his speech, Abe seemed to suggest that the time for apologies might be drawing to a close. Noting that more than 80 percent of Japan's population was born after the war, the prime minister said:
"We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past."
In its analysis of the address, The Japan Times says Abe "speaks of regret but dodges details."
According to the newspaper:
"His choice of words was apparently aimed at calming critics because the closely observed text included four phrases used in earlier war apology statements: 'heartfelt apology' and 'deep remorse,' 'colonial rule' and 'aggression.'
"With his support rate plummeting to below 40 percent for the first time since he returned as prime minister in December 2012, a Jiji Press poll has found, Abe was apparently trying to avoid rattling the administration with further political and diplomatic rows."
It didn't go far enough for China's state-run Xinhua news agency, which ran a commentary under the headline "Abe's watered-down apology fails sincerity test."
Saying that Abe failed to reduce "Tokyo's trust deficit," Xinhua accuses the Japanese leader of using "linguistic tricks, attempting to please his rightwing base on the one hand and avoid further damage in Japan's ties with its neighbors on the other."
In his speech, Abe recalled the innocent men and women who lost their lives in the war, saying, "History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone." He said that when he thinks about those losses, "even now, I find myself speechless and my heart is rent with the utmost grief."
Abe also discussed Japan's path to war, recounting its early efforts to modernize itself, its war with Russia, and the economic and diplomatic isolation the country felt before World War II. That's when, Abe said, "Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war."
Toward the end of his speech, Abe noted the Japanese people's resilience in the war's aftermath and its efforts to combat nuclear proliferation.
From Tokyo, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, "Tomorrow, Emperor Akihito is expected to give an address at a formal ceremony marking the anniversary of Japan's surrender."