TOKYO (AP) — 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 colonial and wartime aggression.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Emperor Akihito were to deliver brief messages at a commemoration ceremony. Abe appeared unlikely to visit the shrine, though at least two cabinet members were seen paying their respects in the morning.
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.
But visits to the shrine, whose grounds also house a war museum glorifying Japan's wartime past, evoke bitter memories across Asia.
The hawkish Abe has said he regrets not visiting Yasukuni on the surrender anniversary during his first, one-year term in 2006-2007. But Kyodo News Service and other local media were citing sources close to Abe who said he instead donated an ornamental offering bought with his own money.
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.
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.
Despite its apparent tranquility, Yasukuni remains a focus of nationalist pride. A shrine of Japan's indigenous Shinto religion, it glorifies Japan's militarist past and is closely associated with the monarchy, though the last known visit by a reigning emperor was in 1975.