Emperor Naruhito followed in his father’s footsteps in expressing “deep remorse” over the war Japan waged in the 1930s and ’40s in his first speech at the annual ceremony commemorating the nation’s 3.1 million war dead, at Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo on Thursday.
Facing an altar blanketed with white and yellow chrysanthemums, the emperor said, “Looking back on the long period of postwar peace, 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 speech, given at the service marking the 74th anniversary since Japan’s surrender ended World War II, was similar in style and content to those that his father, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, gave in previous years.
In 2015, then-Emperor Akihito sent shock waves across the nation by expressing “deep remorse” over Japan’s involvement in World War II in his annual speech for the first time. He had never before referred in such direct terms to Japan’s involvement or responsibility in the war.
He repeated the phrase in subsequent speeches at the annual service — a practice Emperor Naruhito has inherited.
“My thoughts are with the numerous people who lost their precious lives in the last war and their bereaved families as I attend this memorial ceremony for the war dead with a deep and renewed sense of sorrow,” the emperor said, using terms almost identical to those in his father’s speeches.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also renewed his vow to maintain peace and paid his respects to the war dead but, as in the past, his speech steered clear of acknowledging Japan’s wartime responsibility.
The emperor’s speech came days after Kyodo News reported that Yasukuni Shrine had formally requested that the emperor emeritus visit the war-linked shrine to mark 150 years since it was built, a request to which he had not responded. Yasukuni took that silence to mean he has no intention of visiting, according to Kyodo.
Yasukuni has long been a source of contention with neighboring countries for its enshrinement of class-A war criminals as martyrs, among millions of war dead. Visits by high-ranking government officials have been condemned by China and South Korea as a sign of what they consider to be Japan’s unapologetic stance on its wartime aggression and colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Abe paid a visit to Yasukuni in December 2013, stirring up controversy, but has not visited since.
Previous emperors visited the site somewhat regularly, given its history linked to the modern imperial family, but the custom stopped with the final visit in 1975 by Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa. It is believed that he refrained from continuing to visit the shrine after hearing that class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, were enshrined along with soldiers who died during war.
A total of 6,497 people attended this year’s commemoration service, including 4,989 people who lost relatives in the war, the Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry said. Ministry estimates also showed the extent to which those who experienced the war firsthand are declining. Widows of the war dead now make up only 0.1 percent of the attendees, down from 16.5 percent in 1998. The number of attendees born after the conflict has ballooned in the past few years, from 21.6 percent in 2015 to 30.6 percent this year, highlighting the difficulty of keeping the memories and lessons of the war alive as generations who have experienced the war grow old and die.