Japan marked the 66th anniversary of its surrender in World War II on Monday with somber remembrances across the country and a memorial in Tokyo led by the emperor. The ceremonies come as the country struggles to recover from this year's devastating earthquake and tsunami.
Emperor Akihito, whose father made the unprecedented 1945 national radio address announcing the war could not be won, offered prayers for the dead and hopes for peace at Monday's memorial in Tokyo. Prime Minister Naoto Kan also attended.
The annual ceremonies cap a series of remembrances of the war's disastrous final months. Gatherings are also held each year for the anniversaries of the bloody battle of Okinawa in June and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both in early August.
"We again feel a deep sadness for those who died and for their families," Akihito said before a bank of yellow and white chrysanthemums erected in memory of the dead. "Looking back on history, we fervently hope not to repeat the tragedy of war."
This year the memorial was particularly poignant for Japan, which is struggling to recover from the magnitude 9.0 March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left more than 20,000 people dead or missing, touched off a nuclear crisis and caused scenes of destruction reminiscent of the devastation seen in 1945.
Kan said Japan should use its experience in rebuilding after its World War II defeat as a lesson that it can recover from the March disaster.
"Since the war, our nation has overcome many difficult times," he said. "Using this experience, the devastated areas, and our nation itself, will recover strongly from the disaster."
While the anniversary in Japan is an inward-directed occasion to remember and honor its own dead, the day continues to evoke bitter memories across Asia of Japan's brutal militarist exploits.
Visits by senior politicians to a Tokyo war shrine on the anniversary have often inflamed those lingering wounds and are closely scrutinized around the region. The Shinto shrine honors the 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including Class A war criminals such as Hideki Tojo, and is seen by many as a center of Japanese revisionism.
But for the second time, Kan stayed away from Yasukuni this year.
Last year — when Kan was still new at the helm and trying to improve ties with Japan's Asian neighbors — was the first time since the end of World War II that the entire Japanese Cabinet avoided visiting Yasukuni on Aug. 15.
Instead, Kan officially laid a wreath Monday morning at a different war memorial in Tokyo that is not associated with Yasukuni.
At Monday's main service, held at a martial arts and concert hall, he reiterated Japan's remorse for the suffering it caused in Asia.
"We caused great suffering and pain to many countries, especially in Asia, in the war and we must deeply reflect, while paying our respects to the many victims and their families," he told the 7,200 people who attended.