By The Straits Times
Cabinet ministers also visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on the war anniversary for the first time since 2016.
Emperor Naruhito, 60, who was born after the war, said in his first public appearance since the Covid-19 outbreak that he feels "deep remorse" for the battles waged in his grandfather's name. He added: "I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never again be repeated."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made no expression of remorse or apology, but said at the National Memorial Ceremony for the War Dead: "We will never forget that the peace and prosperity we enjoy today are built on the ultimate sacrifices of the war dead.
"Japan's oath is to never allow the tragedies of war to be repeated," added Mr Abe, who wants to revise the nation's pacifist Constitution to allow a more aggressive defence posture.
"Under the banner of proactive pacifism, Japan is determined to play a greater role than ever to solve the various challenges facing the world while working with the international community," he said.
Over in South Korea, which marks the occasion as National Liberation Day, President Moon Jae-in paid tribute to freedom fighters.
He added that he wants dialogue with Japan to overcome historical issues such as forced labour and comfort women that continue to plague bilateral relations.
"I believe that joint efforts by Japan and Korea to respect individual human rights will become a bridge for friendship and future cooperation between the peoples of our two countries," he said.
North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency, citing a statement by the Korean Committee on Measures for the Sexual Slavery for Japanese Army and Drafting Victims, accused Japan of "desperately shunning atonement for its past crimes" and called for a sincere apology and reparation to the "victims of hideous inhuman crimes".
China's state-run Global Times cited experts who blame Japan for a recent chill in bilateral ties and allege a lack of sincerity in fulfilling post-war promises and a rise in historical revisionism. It said: "Japan, which had historically brought great misery to the Chinese people, should learn from history and not follow the same path."
Mr Abe, who did not mention diplomatic issues in his speech, sent a ritual offering on Saturday to the Yasukuni Shrine but did not personally make the trip.
Any visit by a sitting Japanese premier will cause a diplomatic uproar; Mr Abe's last trip in December 2013 not only raised the ire of China and South Korea, but was also frowned upon by its ally the United States.
The shrine honours millions of war dead. But the enshrinement of 14 convicted Class A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, has raised perceptions of the Yasukuni Shrine as an emblem of Japan's past militarism.
No emperor has visited since 1978, after the decision to honour war criminals there.
Four Cabinet ministers paid their respects at the shrine on Friday, the first visits on the war anniversary since 2016. They were Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda, Minister-in-charge of Territorial Issues Seiichi Eto, and Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi.
"While bearing in mind the will for peace, it is only natural to want to pay our condolences to those who give their lives for the country," Mr Koizumi, 39, who is seen as a future prime minister, told reporters.
"It should no longer be an era where ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine become news."