Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori apologized once more Friday for having caused a misunderstanding with his remark that Japan is “a divine nation centering on the Emperor,” but he refused to withdraw it. “I deeply reflect upon and apologize that my comment has caused misunderstanding among many people,” Mori said during a specially arranged press conference.

But he did not retract the comment, saying that his remark had been misunderstood by the public.

“I did not mean to say the Emperor is a god. I personally do not have such a belief,” Mori said.

“As prime minister, it is only natural that I respect the principle that sovereignty rests with the people and (I respect) freedom of religion as spelled out in the Constitution,” he said.

He stressed that the Emperor is “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” as stipulated by the postwar Constitution.

Mori made the controversial remark — compared by some to the nationalist fervor seen before and during World War II — during a gathering of lawmakers belonging to Shinto Seiji Renmei, a political group of the Association of Shinto Shrines, on May 15.

Critics say the words were also a disturbing echo of Japan’s militaristic past, when Japanese troops conquered Asian countries in the name of the Emperor.

In the press conference at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, the prime minister admitted his remark had left room for misunderstanding — but he did not say it was inappropriate.

The prime minister did not address questions asking if he would withdraw the remark, but rather explained the intentions behind the remark.

He said he was not referring to a specific religion when he spoke of a “divine nation.” He said he was referring to the traditional Japanese belief that gods exist in nature.

The prime minister made a similar apology before the Diet last week but failed to quell political and public criticism.

The remark has prompted four opposition parties to plan the joint submission of a no-confidence motion against Mori’s Cabinet to the Diet on Wednesday, claiming the remark runs counter to the principle of separation of church and state as spelled out in the Constitution.

The latest opinion polls have shown a sharp decline in public support for Mori’s administration. The slide has even led some Liberal Democratic Party members to call for a delay in general elections, planned for June 25.

Hatoyama is critical

Opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama criticized Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s efforts to vindicate himself on Friday, pointing out that Mori neither retracted nor corrected his controversial “divine nation” remark.

“It is an issue that should be judged by the Japanese public. I, for one, cannot accept his explanation,” said Hatoyama, president of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Saying Mori’s remark was suggestive of the “divine Japan” concept which once led the nation into war, Hatoyama maintained the explanation provided by the prime minister Friday was not sufficient to eradicate the anxiety felt by Asian neighbors.

“The remark should have been corrected or withdrawn. After all, Japan is a democratic nation with the people at its center,” Hatoyama said.

Hatoyama, a former Liberal Democratic Party member, said the debacle over the prime minister’s remark is typical of the “LDP’s authoritarian way of thinking, which regards the people as being located at the bottom of a hierarchy that consists of — in upward order — the bureaucrats, the Cabinet and the god or the Emperor.”