TOKYO – Asia commemorated the 60th anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender on Monday by honoring the dead and searching for reconciliation. Japan's leader tried to salve wounds by apologizing for the "great damages and pain" it inflicted on its neighbors.
With ceremonies and protests, the region memorialized the end to a conflict that killed millions of soldiers and civilians from the jungles of Burma to the glistening beaches of the Pacific and the sprawling cities of Japan and Korea.
Anger mixed with sorrow amid rekindled tension between Tokyo and the countries its Imperial Army invaded decades ago.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) expressed "deep reflections and heartfelt apology" for the Tokyo's wartime colonization and pledged that his country would never forget the "terrible lessons" of the war, which ended Aug. 15, 1945.
"Our country has caused great damages and pain to people in many countries, especially our Asian neighbors, through colonization and invasion," Koizumi said in a statement.
At a ceremony shortly thereafter, Koizumi and Emperor Akihito (search) — son of wartime Emperor Hirohito (search) — bowed before an alter of chrysanthemums at a nationally televised service for the nation's estimated 3 million war dead.
Japan's relations with some of its Asian neighbors are at the lowest in years in part because of disputes about whether Japan has properly atoned for its past aggressions. The issue has contributed to opposition to Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Fueling the grievances are Koizumi's controversial visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine (search) and his government's approval of history textbooks that critics say whitewash wartime atrocities such as the Rape of Nanjing (search), in which Japanese troops massacred as many as 300,000 people while taking the Chinese city in 1937.
Tensions have also been stoked by disputes between Tokyo, Beijing, Taipei and Seoul over resource-rich islands off their coasts, and Japan's running argument with China over gas drilling in a contested area of the East China Sea. Concerns over communist North Korea's nuclear weapons program have also increased regional friction.
Protesters in Hong Kong, which Japan occupied from 1941-45, marched on Tokyo's consulate Monday, saying Japan had not sufficiently atoned for military aggression and chanting "Japan's hands are full of fresh blood."
Scores of police, meanwhile, guarded Japan's Beijing embassy as China marked the anniversary demanding that Japanese leaders face up to suffering inflicted by their nation.
"Only with an honest attitude toward history can a nation win reconciliation and then integrate into the global community," the China Daily newspaper said.
China's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on Koizumi's "heartfelt apology."
North and South Korea used the anniversary as an opportunity to reconcile political differences that have kept the peninsula divided since the end of World War II. Liberation Day, a national holiday in both countries, was celebrated Monday by using a fiber-optic cable laid across the heavily fortified inter-Korean border to enable about 40 separated families to reunite over video links.
A day earlier, a visiting North Korean delegation paid an unprecedented gesture to the South by visiting its main cemetery where dead from the Korean War are buried along with independence fighters against Japanese rule, which began in 1910.
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister John Howard lauded Australian troops who become the first among the allies to defeat Japanese land forces in the Battle of Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea — a landmark victory.
"It was the Australians who first broke the invincibility of the Japanese army," Howard said, noting that Australia provided the allies with one million men and women in uniform despite having a population of only 7 million when war broke out in Europe in 1939.
Casting a shadow over the commemorations is the Yasukuni shrine and speculation that Koizumi will visit, eliciting the rage of China and the Koreas which revile the site for deifying among its war dead several Japanese war criminals, including World War II prime minister Hideki Tojo. Koizumi has pledged to make annual visits and hasn't done so since January 2004.