Tokyo (AFP) - Japan marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II Saturday under criticism from China and South Korea, which said nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to properly apologise for Tokyo's past aggression.
Further straining relations, a trio of cabinet ministers visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine -- which neighbouring countries see as a symbol of Tokyo's militarist past -- prompting China to voice its "strong dissatisfaction".
The memorial services marking the day Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945 come after Abe on Friday delivered a closely watched speech that expressed regret -- but also said future generations need not apologise for Japan's war record.
His remarks were welcomed by the US but blasted by China as a non-apology, while Pyongyang derided it as "an unpardonable mockery of the Korean people".
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said his remarks "left much to be desired" and stressed the need for Japan to resolve the long-simmering issue of Asian women forced to work as sex slaves in Japanese military brothels.
However the Philippines, another wartime foe, said it had rebuilt a "strong friendship" with Tokyo.
Britain applauded the statement, while Australian leader Tony Abbott said Abe's remarks "should make it easier for other countries to accept Japan's commitment to a better future for all".
In a speech for Saturday's war commemorations, Emperor Akihito said he felt "profound remorse" over a war Tokyo fought in the name of his father Hirohito.
Some Japanese media said it was the first time the 81-year-old had used those words at the annual memorial.
Earlier about 60 politicians, including Sanae Takaichi, minister for internal affairs, entered the gates of Yasukuni.
The shrine is dedicated to millions of Japanese who died in conflicts -- but also includes more than a dozen war criminals' names on its honour list and a museum that portrays Japan as a victim of US aggression.
It makes scant reference to the brutality of invading Imperial troops when they stormed across Asia -- especially China and Korea -- in the 20th century.
- 'Died for the country' -
"How we console the souls (of war victims) is a matter for individual countries -- it should not be a diplomatic issue," Takaichi told reporters, responding to questions about possible criticism over her visit.
Other politicians visiting included Haruko Arimura, minister for women's empowerment, and Eriko Yamatani, minister of disaster management, along with thousands of other visitors.
The visits every August 15 enrage neighbouring nations, which view them as an insult and painful reminder of now-pacifist Japan's history, including its brutal 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula.
China's foreign ministry voiced its opposition to Saturday's visits in a statement which said they demonstrated "Japan's erroneous attitudes toward the historical issues".
"China lodges its resolute opposition and strong dissatisfaction," the statement added.
Abe, the grandson of a wartime cabinet minister, was not expected to visit on Saturday, and instead sent a ritual offering to the shrine. His late 2013 visit drew an angry response from Beijing and Seoul, as well as a rebuke from close ally Washington.
Founded in 1869, the Shinto shrine honours some 2.5 million citizens who died in World War II and other conflicts -- along with 14 indicted war criminals, including General Hideki Tojo, who authorised the attack on Pearl Harbor, drawing the US into the war.
Japan's wartime history has come under a renewed focus since Abe swept into power in late 2012, and much speculation had focused on whether he would follow a landmark 1995 statement issued by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama.
Murayama's statement, which became a benchmark for subsequent apologies, expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" for the "tremendous damage" inflicted, particularly in Asia.
- 'Apology season' -
But on Friday, Abe -- who has been criticised for playing down Japan's war record and trying to expand its present-day military -- said future generations 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.
He also reiterated his desire to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, possibly early next month. His speech made specific reference to the suffering of Chinese people at hands of Japanese soldiers.
Analysts said Abe was appealing to allies and neighbours while sticking to his nationalist convictions.
"It was a clever message that includes everything," said Haruko Sato, an Osaka University professor and expert on Japan-China relations.
But "his pledge to stop future generations from making repeated apologies appears to be what he really has in his mind".
Japan has seen little in the way of a national reckoning over the conflict, unlike wartime ally Germany.
"No German chancellor would say 'it's been a long time, the apology season will end soon'", said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.