Japan's Emperor Akihito has apologized for his country's actions during World War II, 70 years after its surrender, expressing for the first time "deep remorse" over the death and destruction caused by Japanese forces.

"On this day to commemorate the war dead and pray for peace, my thoughts are with the people who lost their precious lives in the last war and their bereaved families," Emperor Akihito said in a speech during the ceremony.

"Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated," he said.

The unprecedented apology goes further than the "profound grief" and "sincere condolences" offered in astatement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the eve of the anniversary of the August 15, 1945 recorded announcement by then Emperor Hirohito that Japan had capitulated. The actual surrender was signed the following month aboard the USS Missouri.

As Japan Times notes: "The Emperor's brief remarks at the annual ceremony were almost identical to those in previous years, but he expressed 'deep remorse' over the war, a new phrase inserted this year. Japan is being closely watched by neighboring countries keen to see how it reflects on the nation's wartime actions."

Japanese aggression during the war is still felt keenly in parts of Asia, particularly China, invaded and occupied by Imperial forces in 1931 and Korea, which was a Japanese colony from 1910-1945.

The emperor's statement comes as Abe's government tries to push through unpopular reforms to allow Japan a limited ability to project military power for the first time since that was expressly forbidden in its post-war constitution. More broadly, Tokyo has also been keen to put to rest the ghost of its wartime atrocities, with some going so far as to downplay or deny the use of "comfort women" — or sex slaves — in military brothels.

In 2013, Abe's visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan's war dead including convicted war criminals, sparked controversy. Although he did not visit the shrine on the anniversary of the surrender, Koichi Hagiuda, a member of parliament and a close aide to the government, is quoted by Japan Times as saying of the prime minister that "his sense of gratefulness for the spirits (of the war dead) and his feelings for Yasukuni have not changed." According to the newspaper, Hagiuda said that Abe had probably chosen to stay away from the shrine today because of diplomatic tensions that resulted from his last visit.

Instead, Abe prayed and laid flowers at a national cemetery for unnamed fallen soldiers ahead of the annual ceremony at Tokyo's Budokan hall, The Associated Press reports.

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