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Japanese Prime Minister Expresses 'Profound Grief' For WWII Aggression

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You'd have to look hard to find a speech more closely parsed than the statement given by Japan's prime minister today. His speech marked the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender to the Allies, ending World War II. But Japan's neighbors have not forgotten the war. They seek a greater accounting of that country's aggression. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: China and South Korea wanted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make an apology for Japan's wartime aggression. Well, they didn't get it. Abe did, however, express sorrow in a nationally televised speech.

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SHINZO ABE: (Through interpreter) On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I bow my head deeply for the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal sincere condolences.

KUHN: Abe also alluded to the Japanese military's sexual enslavement of women, mostly Chinese and Korean, during the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABE: (Through interpreter) We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured.

KUHN: Japan has repeatedly apologized for its wartime actions, he added, and that position will not change. But Abe hinted at the fact that many conservative Japanese feel they've apologized enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABE: (Through interpreter) In Japan, the postwar generations now exceed 80 percent of its population. 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.

KUHN: Twenty years ago, on the 50th anniversary, then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama made a heartfelt apology that was generally well received across Asia. At the time, Abe did not agree with it. But Yuichi Hosoya, a scholar of international politics at Keio University in Tokyo says that Abe has been boning up on his history lately and has had a change of heart about the Murayama statement.

YUICHI HOSOYA: He shows that he is not historical revisionist. He clearly accepts Murayama's statement. He clearly said that Japan invaded surrounding countries and killed so many people.

KUHN: Murayama himself, though, told several Japanese media that Abe did not uphold his statement. Neighbors which Japan invaded during the war were even less impressed. The new China news agency commented that Abe's speech was full of linguistic tricks and flunked the sincerity test. South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party accused Abe of beating around the bush. The U.S., however, said it welcomes Abe's expression of remorse. Yuichi Hosoya says Abe had to craft his statement very carefully to meet demands from some very different audiences.

HOSOYA: This statement should be accepted by the right-wingers left-wingers because it is now very important for the government to create a sort of a national consensus over historical issues.

KUHN: Those historical issues, Hosoya concedes, have so far deeply divided Japan. Ahead of the speech, Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano said he's skeptical Abe's statement will lay anything to rest.

KOICHI NAKANO: The controversy surrounding the, you know, war issue, the history issue, is not going to be - likely to be resolved with Abe's statement, no matter what is in it.

KUHN: Tomorrow, at a formal ceremony marking the anniversary of Japan's surrender, someone else may weigh in on the issue - Emperor Akihito. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.