Photo/IllutrationEmperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attend the national memorial ceremony held at Nippon Budokan on Aug. 15 to mark the end of World War II. (The Asahi Shimbun)

Emperor Akihito delivered an address to a war memorial service in Tokyo on Aug. 15, the day marking the end of World War II.

It was his last speech for the annual ceremony before his scheduled abdication of the throne at the end of April next year.

The emperor’s addresses for the memorial services for the war dead over the past 30 years have been more or less the same in content and wording, but there have been subtle but significant changes.

In the ceremony for 1989, the first after his ascent to the imperial throne, Akihito referred to “the numerous people who lost their valuable (later precious) lives” in the war, a phrase that stressed the supreme value of human lives. This expression has since been regularly used in his addresses on the occasion.

In 1995, which marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, he said, “reflecting on history, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” indicating his determination to remain always aware of Japan’s wartime past. This phrase has also been used in his war memorial addresses in the following years.

In the summer of 2015, at the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, the emperor used the term “deep remorse” for the first time, saying, “Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war.”

In his last speech for the ceremony on Aug. 15 this year, this part was slightly changed to, “Looking back on the long period of postwar peace, reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse.”

The emperor’s speeches are composed with the advice and under the responsibility of the Cabinet. But these war memorial addresses reflect the deep feelings of Akihito, who was 11 when the war ended with Japan’s defeat, and has made many trips to mourn for the war dead to destinations both at home and abroad.

We all need to ruminate on the profound implications of his key phrases in these addresses, such as “precious lives,” “reflecting on history” and “deep remorse.”

A book titled “Nihon gun heishi” (Soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army), written by Yutaka Yoshida of Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, has become the talk of the town. The book depicts how little value wartime Japanese leaders and military bureaucrats placed on human lives.

Of the 2.3 million Japanese soldiers who died in the war, as many as 61 percent, or 37 percent at least, are estimated to have died of starvation including death from diseases caused by malnutrition, according to estimates by researchers.

For many Japanese soldiers, the real “enemy” was not the military of the countries they were fighting against.

In Okinawa, the “enemy” of local residents was often Japanese troops. They chased civilians out of shelters and sometimes pressured them to commit suicide.

In 2007, when the government ordered school textbook publishers to delete descriptions in their history textbooks about how the Japanese military forced local residents in Okinawa to commit mass suicide, people in the prefecture who knew the facts staged a fierce protest.

One was the late Takeshi Onaga, who was then mayor of Naha, the prefecture’s capital. Onaga recently died while serving as Okinawa governor.

One of the factors behind the nation’s failure to pass on accurate pictures of the war and the proliferation of false accounts of the war is a tendency to make light of records. Some examples of this attitude came to light recently.

Immediately after the end of the war, the government, which feared being held responsible for the nation’s wartime acts, ordered the destruction of huge amounts of records concerning the war.

Seventy-three years on, we need to ponder afresh over whether Japan has really become a country that reflects on history, feels deep remorse over the war and places great value on human lives.

In his speech at the memorial service, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “Humbly facing history ....”

Japanese today have a moral obligation to the war dead to make sincere efforts to act according to this principle.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 16