Emperor Akihito on Monday expressed “deep remorse” over World War II during the annual commemoration service at Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo marking Japan’s surrender while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used more ambiguous wording.

In his speech on the 71st anniversary of the surrender, Abe pledged that “we shall never again repeat the horrors of war” and underscored that Japan has not waged war for more than seven decades.

But he stopped short of mentioning Japan’s wartime aggression overseas and omitted any mention of remorse.

“Ever since the end of the war, our country has abhorred wars and walked along a path as a nation that values peace,” Abe said. “Going forward we will firmly keep this pledge, humbly face history, and contribute to world peace and prosperity.”

Abe avoided visiting war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on the anniversary, apparently to avoid worsening diplomatic tensions with China and South Korea. Instead, he paid a visit to nearby Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which holds the remains of 365,000 unidentified Japanese soldiers who died overseas, a venue that lacks the political baggage of Yasukuni.

But Abe dispatched an aide to the shrine to offer a tamagushiryo (cash offering), in an apparent attempt to appease nationalists who expected him to go in person.

Relations with China have been strained in recent weeks, as Beijing has sent a flotilla of hundreds of fishing boats and several government ships to the waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The Japan-administrated islets are claimed by China and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, several South Korean lawmakers landed on a pair of disputed Seoul-controlled islands off Shimane Prefecture on Monday, potentially raising tensions. The outcroppings are called Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea.

Last year the Emperor surprised the public by using the phrase “deep remorse” for the first time in the annual war commemoration, which is attended by thousands of relatives of those who died. The audience reached 6,000 this year.

He repeated the sentence almost word by word in his brief speech during the televised ceremony.

“Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” the 82-year-old Emperor said. “I now pay my heartfelt tribute to all those who lost their lives in the war, both on the battlefields and elsewhere, and pray for world peace and for the continuing development of our country.”

Under the postwar Constitution, emperors are prohibited from political activities.

How to view World War II is still a politically sensitive issue in Japan, particularly among right-wingers who argue Japan should not be singled out as the sole villain.

On Aug. 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, delivered a radio address declaring Japan’s surrender and ending World War II. The day remains one of the most emotional for the Japanese people, in particular those who lived through Japan’s wars in the 1930s and ’40s.

However, seven decades later, increasingly few survivors remain.

Moreover, fewer close relatives of the war dead are still alive. At the ceremony in Nippon Budokan Hall, wartime widows represented only 0.1 percent of those in attendance.

The eldest was Kazu Nakano of Tokyo, aged 101, whose husband was killed in the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines in 1944, the government said.

Fourteen people under the age of 18 and relatives of people who died handed out flowers to attendees at the ceremony. It was the first time young people were assigned this task.

Previously, health ministry officials were in charge of handing out flowers, but the move to include teens was seen as an effort to draw new generations into the ceremony.

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