Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed deep remorse Friday over World War II and said previous national apologies were unshakeable, but emphasised future generations should not have to keep saying sorry.
In a closely watched speech a day ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, the nationalist premier appeared to tread a fine line between regret over Japanese wartime aggression while also focusing on what his pacifist country had done since the end of the conflict.
"Japan has repeatedly expressed feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war.... we have consistently devoted ourselves to the peace and prosperity of the region since the end of the war," Abe said.
"Such position(s) articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future."
When speaking about China, Abe referred to "unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military" and said Tokyo "took the wrong course" in going to war.
Referring to those who perished in the war, Abe expressed "profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences". He said this was also for millions of Japanese who died, some from the US atomic bombings.
Abe, a grandson of a wartime cabinet minister, added that "we have engraved in our hearts" the suffering of Asian neighbours, including South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
But Abe -- who has been criticised for playing down Japan's war record and trying to expand its present-day military -- added that future generations of Japanese should not have to apologise.
"We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise," he said.
China and South Korea had previously made clear they wanted him to stick to explicit prime ministerial apologies.
China says more than 20 million of its citizens died as a result of Japan's invasion, occupation and atrocities, while Tokyo colonised the Korean peninsula for 35 years until 1945.
Initial media reaction in South Korea was largely negative, with television analysts noting the general expressions of grief and remorse but no explicit apology for Japan's wartime aggression.
A sculpture in the 'Shanghai Songhu Memorial Park for the War of Resistance against Japan' in Shanghai on August 13, 2015. China says more than 20 million of its citizens died as a result of Japan's invasion, occupation and atrocities.
"Abe skips his own apology," ran the headline on the national Yonhap news agency, which said the speech had fallen short of South Korea's expectations.
The foreign ministry in Seoul said that, after Abe's speech, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se had received a call from his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, to explain the message.
Yun simply responded that Seoul wanted to see Japan's "sincere action" regarding historical issues, the ministry said. A formal South Korean response to the speech was expected later.
China gave no immediate official reaction, but the official Xinhua news agency said that Abe made no "fresh apology".
Much speculation had focused on whether Abe would follow a landmark 1995 statement issued by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama.
The so-called Murayama Statement, which became a benchmark for subsequent apologies, expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" for the "tremendous damage" inflicted, particularly in Asia.
Japan's wartime history has come under a renewed focus since Abe swept to power in late 2012.
Abe had raised concerns with his Asian neighbours with comments about adopting a "forward-looking attitude" that concentrated on the positive role his country had played in the post-war years.
South Korean protestors burn a Japanese rising-sun flag and placards during an anti-Japanese rally over South Korean so-called "comfort women".
He had also made waves by quibbling over the definition of "invade", and provoked anger by downplaying Tokyo's formalised system of sex slavery in military brothels.
A 2013 visit to a controversial Tokyo war memorial shrine sent relations with Beijing and Seoul to their lowest point in decades, already suffering from long-standing territorial disputes.
Abe's nationalism tends to be especially popular with a small but vocal section of the political right that believes Japan is unfairly criticised for its violent wartime past.
Japan's own national self-narrative has over the decades become one more of victim of the US atomic bombings and a war-mongering government, rather than colonialist aggressor largely responsible for an ill-fated Pacific conflict.
There has been little in the way of a national reckoning or blame thrust upon wartime emperor Hirohito, unlike in Germany where blame was heaped on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
A poll published in Japan's Mainichi newspaper on Friday found 47 percent of those surveyed thought Japan's involvement in WWII was "wrong" because it was an invasion.
It also said 44 percent of respondents thought Japan had apologised enough over the war, while 31 percent thought it had not.