TOKYO (AP) — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged that Japan inflicted "immeasurable damage and suffering" on innocent people in World War II, but stopped short of offering his own apology, drawing criticism from China and South Korea.
In a widely anticipated statement 70 years after his country's surrender, he said Friday that Japan's repeated past "heartfelt apologies" would remain unshakeable, but that future Japanese generations should not have to keep apologizing.
"On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad," Abe said in a 25-minute live address on national television. "I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences."
South Korea's president said the statement "left a lot to be desired," and China called it evasive.
"Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars, made (a) sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Abe's statement came up short compared to past Japanese apologies, but she also sounded a positive note, crediting Abe for making it clear that the views of previous Japanese governments will be firmly maintained.
"Although a lot of difficulties remain, it's time for us to march together into the future based on the right historical perspectives about the past," she said in Seoul on Saturday
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 Tokyo's surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.
Abe noted that more than 80 percent of Japan's population was born after the war, and echoed growing though not universal sentiment at home that the country has apologized enough.
"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," he said.
But he said Japan took the wrong course in going to war and that, across generations, Japanese must squarely face that past. In pledging that Japan would remain peaceful, he also made veiled criticism of China's activities in disputed waters in the region.
China has been reclaiming land and erecting structures on South China Sea atolls that are claimed by the Philippines and other countries. In the East China Sea, Japan objects to Chinese aerial and marine patrols around islands that both countries claim.
Elaborating to reporters after reading the statement, Abe said that "any attempt to change the status quo by force should not be tolerated. I believe conveying our lessons learned from our history 70 years ago would be useful not only to Japan but also for the rest of the world."
In the statement, he also made a reference to foreign wartime prostitutes for the Japanese army, though he avoided the question of whether the military forced the so-called "comfort women" to be sex slaves, a hotly contested issue with South Korea.
"We must never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured," he said.
South Korea's Park said "we hope that the Japanese government will solve the issues related to 'comfort women' quickly and properly."
Abe's words failed to satisfy an activist in Taiwan speaking at an event on an international memorial day for comfort women. "He still refused to recognize that the comfort women system was the persecution of women's human rights," said Huang Shu-ling, president of the Taiwan Women's Rescue Foundation.
The United States responded positively to Abe's statement despite the uncertainties over whether it would quell the acrimony over historical issues between Japan and South Korea — America's key allies in Asia.
"We welcome Prime Minister Abe's expression of deep remorse for the suffering caused by Japan during the World War II era, as well as his commitment to uphold past Japanese government statements on history," National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
"For 70 years Japan has demonstrated an abiding commitment to peace, democracy, and the rule of law. This record stands as a model for nations everywhere."
Associated Press journalists Tong-hyung Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Matthew Pennington in Washington and Johnson Lai in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this story.