Kishida marks 78th anniversary of World War II’s end without mentioning Japan’s wartime aggression

TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida renewed a peace pledge Tuesday as Japan observed the 78th anniversary of its World War II defeat but did not mention the country’s wartime aggression in Asia, while three of his former and current Cabinet ministers visited a shrine seen by neighboring countries as a symbol of militarism.

Japan will “stick to our resolve to never repeat the tragedy of the war,” Kishida said at a solemn ceremony in a speech that was almost identical to what he read last year.

The absence of any reference to Japanese aggression across Asia in the first half of the 1900s or its victims in the region followed a precedent set by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013, in what was seen by critics as a move to whitewash Japan’s wartime brutality.

Kishida stressed the destruction that Japan suffered from the war, including the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fire bombings across Japan and the bloody ground battle on Okinawa, and the suffering of Japanese people. He said Japan will stick to its postwar peace pledge and will continue to cooperate with the world in solving global issues.

Kishida has been pushing for a significant buildup of Japan’s military under a new defense strategy that his government released in December, stressing a need to reinforce a strike capability in a major break from Japan’s self-defense-only postwar principle. The shift allows closer military cooperation with its ally, the United States, as well as their Indo-Pacific partners in the face of threats from China and North Korea.

Emperor Naruhito repeated his “deep remorse” over Japan’s wartime actions in a carefully nuanced phrase in his speech, like his father. Emperor Emeritus Akihito devoted his career to making amends for a war fought in the name of the wartime emperor, Hirohito, the current emperor’s grandfather.

Some 1,700 participants observed a minute of silence at noon during the ceremony at the Budokan arena. The crowd was much smaller than the 5,000 who attended in years before the coronavirus pandemic, and dozens of representatives from 10 prefectures in central and western Japan canceled their attendance as a tropical storm crossed their region.

Kishida refrained from praying Tuesday at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine just a block away from the ceremony and sent a religious ornament instead. But three former and current Cabinet ministers visited — Economic Security Minister Sanae Takaichi, former Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi and former Trade and Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda.

Victims of Japanese aggression, especially China and the Koreas, see the shrine as a symbol of Japanese militarism because it honors convicted war criminals among about 2.5 million war dead.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry expressed “deep disappointment and regret” over visits and offerings by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni Shrine, which it said glorifies Japan’s war of aggression. It urged Japan to “squarely face history and demonstrate through action their humble reflection and sincere remorse for its past history.”

Japan’s brutality during its 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula has long strained ties between it and South Korea, although their relations have improved recently under pressure from Washington to strengthen their security cooperation to deal with a growing China threat.

China also denounced the shrine visits, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin saying the “negative move … once again reflects Japan’s wrong attitude towards history.”

China has made “stern” complaints to Japan, Wang told reporters at a daily briefing.

“I must stress that facing squarely and deeply reflecting on the history of aggression is an essential prerequisite for Japan to resume normal postwar relations with its Asian neighbors,” he said.

Many Chinese remain resentful over Japan’s aggression against China, particularly at the brutal outset of the 1937-1945 Second Sino-Japanese War that included the notorious Rape of Nanking. China’s ruling Communist Party bases much of its legitimacy on its opposition to the invaders and seeks to use the memory of the conflict as diplomatic leverage against Tokyo despite close trade ties between them.

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Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

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