Suga said Japan never forgets that the peace the country enjoys today is built on the sacrifices of those who died in the war.
“We will commit to our pledge to never repeat the tragedy of the war,” he said in his first speech at the event since becoming prime minister.
Suga did not offer an apology to the Asian victims of Japanese aggression across the region in the first half of the 20th century—a precedent set by the country’s previous leader, Shinzo Abe.
In a largely domestic-focused speech, Suga listed damage inflicted on Japan and its people, including the U.S. atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Tokyo and other cities and the fierce battle of Okinawa, and mourned for them.
Japanese head of state Naruhito, in contrast, expressed “deep remorse” over his country’s wartime actions in a speech that followed the footsteps of his father, who devoted his 30-year career to making amends for a war fought in the name of Hirohito, the current monarch’s grandfather. Naruhito also said he hoped that people can put their hearts together to overcome the difficulty of the pandemic while seeking happiness and peace for all.
About 200 participants, reduced from about 6,000 before the pandemic, mourned for the dead with a minute of silence. Masks were required, and there was no singing of the national anthem.
Suga vowed to cooperate with the international community in tackling global issues under “proactive pacifism,” a vision that Abe promoted to allow Japan to play a greater military role in international conflicts.
On Sunday, before attending the ceremony at Tokyo’s Budokan hall, Suga laid flowers at a nearby national cemetery for unknown soldiers.
Abe, who stepped down as prime minister last year, prayed at the Yasukuni Shrine Sunday, as did three other members of Suga’s Cabinet. Two other ministers visited the shrine Friday. Suga did not visit but sent a ritual offering through his secretary, the Sankei newspaper said.
A representative for Yasukuni declined to comment on whether the prime minister had sent an offering. No one was immediately available for comment at Suga’s office outside regular working hours.
The Yasukuni Shrine honors Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, including 14 World War II leaders convicted as “Class A” war criminals, making it a flashpoint for tension. Koreans still chafe over Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, while the Chinese continue to resent Japan’s invasion and occupation of parts of China from 1931 to 1945.
Many Japanese pay respects to relatives at the shrine and conservatives say leaders should be able to commemorate the war dead. China and North and South Korea, however, have voiced objection given that war criminals are included among those honored at Yasukuni.
The shrine saw a constant stream of visitors from early morning, including families with children and people in military uniform, in the face of persistent rain and a recent spike in coronavirus cases in Tokyo.
Reuters contributed to this report