Emperor Akihito Expresses ‘Deep Remorse’ for Japan’s Role in World War II


People released doves at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on Saturday, the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Credit Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

TOKYO — Emperor Akihito, whose father announced his exhausted country’s surrender in World War II, expressed “deep remorse” for the conflict on Saturday at a memorial service on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.

The words were not new for the emperor: He has often spoken of remorse over the war, and he has done so increasingly in recent years, in meetings with foreign leaders and visits to sites where battles once raged.

But they were an unfamiliar addition to the short and highly ritualized statement he delivers each year at the memorial ceremony on Aug. 15. In a year of controversies in Japan over memories of the war and the role of the country’s modern military, they could reinforce a belief among some observers that Emperor Akihito is taking a quiet stand against the policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The emperor’s statement came a day after Mr. Abe, a conservative nationalist, made his own keenly awaited remarks about the war, in which he endorsed past expressions of contrition by Japanese leaders — including the same “deep remorse” — but chose not to make a new apology of his own, a departure from past practice.

Akihito, 81, is a figurehead with no role in government, though he is personally popular. He speaks softly and, in public, relatively rarely. And his words on Saturday suggested that he was expressing a general, national sense of regret as much as expressing his own.

“Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” he said at the ceremony.

The addition of the word “remorse” nonetheless attracted notice, as did another new turn of phrase, in which he spoke of the Japanese people’s “earnest desire for the continuation of peace.”

“Since the start of the Abe administration, there has been a more noticeable political message in the words and actions of the emperor and empress,” said Takashi Hara, an expert on the imperial family at Meiji Gakuin University. “I think the emperor is critical of Abe.”

Mr. Abe is seeking to loosen postwar restrictions on Japan’s military, which until now has been limited to a strictly defensive role. In doing so, he is contending with a Japanese public — and possibly a monarch — that has been reluctant to part with its more pacifist identity.

Conservatives in Japan, like Mr. Abe, are also dissatisfied by what they see as excessive self-flagellation over the war and Japan’s Asian colonial expansion in the early 20th century.

Mr. Abe has angered Chinese and South Korean leaders by visiting the Yasukuni shrine, the controversial site where Japanese leaders who were executed as war criminals are honored along with millions of soldiers and sailors. Akihito’s father, Hirohito, stopped visiting the shrine in the late 1970s after the so-called Class-A war criminals were added to its rolls.

Mr. Abe, as expected, did not visit on Saturday, sending a ritual offering of cash instead. Three members of his cabinet visited.

Parsing the emperor’s closely guarded opinions is a task that could confound Soviet-era Kremlinologists. But there have been other hints of support for pacifism and the war-renouncing postwar Constitution.

This month the Imperial Household Agency released refurbished recordings of the radio broadcast made by Hirohito when he declared Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. Several times this year, Akihito has made unusually direct references to wartime events and the need, as he said on one occasion, to “study and learn from the history of this war.”

In February, the emperor’s son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 55, also appeared to chide Mr. Abe when he said it was necessary to “correctly pass down” history to future generations.

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