More than 6,100 people offered a prayer for the war dead during a state-sponsored ceremony at the Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo on Tuesday, marking the 72nd anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, with aging relatives conspicuous by their absence.
For the first time since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office for his second prime ministership in December 2012, no Cabinet members made controversial visits to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on the memorial day.
The oldest relative to attend the ceremony was Harumi Serigano, 101, whose soldier-husband, Hiroshi, was killed in Motobu, Okinawa, on June 24, 1945.
As more than seven decades have passed since the end of the war, the number of attending widows of Japanese soldiers, like Serigano — once the typical next of kin — has fallen to six this year from 954 in 1998.
According to the internal affairs ministry, the average age of widows of Japanese servicemen who are receiving a military pension now stands at 94.5.
Meanwhile, according to a June survey by NHK, 14 percent of 503 respondents across the country aged 18 and 19 said they didn’t know Aug. 15 was the anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender. The result has underlined the growing difficulty in passing down collective memories of the war Japan waged in the 1930s and ’40s to members of younger generations.
At the ceremony, attendees observed a moment of silence for the 3.1 million Japanese war dead at noon, when the late Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, addressed the nation 72 years ago by radio to announce that Japan had surrendered. The speech was made days after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with U.S. atomic bombs, and many other cities lay in ruins after air raids.
In their respective speeches, Emperor Akihito and Abe delivered messages that were almost identical to those given at last year’s ceremony. The Emperor expressed “deep remorse” over the war, while Abe repeated his vow to keep Japan from waging war again.
Abe did not mention Japan’s wartime invasion of other parts of Asia or the damage and hardship endured by people in the areas of conquest. He has not spoken about the topic at the annual ceremonies since he took office for his current stint as prime minister in 2012.
All of Abe’s predecessors after 1993 mentioned in one way or another the responsibility Japan bore for the war in their speeches at the ceremonies.
“We will never again let the devastation of war repeat itself,” Abe said in his speech on Tuesday.
“Consistently since the end of the war, Japan has assiduously walked the path of a country that abhors war and values peace,” Abe added, repeating key phrases from the speech he delivered last year.
Meanwhile, Emperor Akihito said: “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.”
Under the postwar Constitution, the Emperor is not allowed to engage in political activities, including expressing an opinion on any politically sensitive issue.
When the Emperor, for the first time, mentioned his “deep remorse over the last war” in his 2015 speech made at the 70th anniversary ceremony, it made headlines because discussing Japan’s wartime misdeeds still can be politically sensitive.
Hajime Watanabe, 83, speaking on behalf of bereaved families, told the ceremony, “We will devote ourselves to work to hand down to the next generations the miseries of war and the preciousness of peace and create a Japan and an international community that will never be involved in war.”
A fourth of the attendees at the ceremony were born after the war, including the fallen servicemen’s grandchildren. The youngest participants were Shoryu Miyagi from Okinawa Prefecture and Ayano Tanabe from Miyazaki Prefecture, both aged 6.
Abe reshuffled his Cabinet on Aug. 3, including an exit for Sanae Takaichi and Tomomi Inada, close aides who were regular visitors to Yasukuni Shirne.
China and South Korea regard the Shinto shrine as a symbol of Japan’s wartime militarism because it enshrines Class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, along with millions of Japanese war dead.