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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed the "utmost grief" on Friday for the "immeasurable damage and suffering" Japan inflicted during World War Two, but said future generations should not have to keep apologizing for the mistakes of the past.
Marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, Abe also said he upheld past official apologies, including a landmark 1995 statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama, but the conservative leader offered no new apology of his own.
The legacy of the war still haunts relations with China and South Korea, which suffered under Japan's sometimes brutal occupation and colonial rule before Tokyo's defeat in 1945.
Beijing and Seoul had made clear they wanted Abe to stick to the 1995 statement expressing "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" for Japanese "colonial rule and aggression".
"Upon the innocent people did our country inflict immeasurable damage and suffering", Abe said in a statement. "When I squarely contemplate this obvious fact, even now, I find myself speechless and my heart is rent with the utmost grief".
The remarks by Abe, who is seen by critics as a revisionist who wants to play down the dark side of Japan's wartime past, will be analyzed not only in China and South Korea, but by the United States, an ally that wants to see regional tensions ease.
In an initial reaction, a commentary by China's official Xinhua news agency said the "tuned-down apology is not of much help to eliminating Tokyo's trust deficit".
"Instead of offering an unambiguous apology, Abe's statement is rife with rhetorical twists like 'maintain our position of apology', dead giveaways of his deep-rooted historical revisionism, which has haunted Japan's neighborhood relations", it added.
The United States, however, welcomed Abe's statement and his commitment to uphold apologies Japan has made in the past.
It said Japan's record since the war had been "a model to everyone", and that Washington valued Abe's assurances of Japan's intent to expand its contribution to international peace and prosperity.
The United States is keen to see Japan play a greater security role in Asia in the face of a rising China and the allies are deepening already close defense ties. At the same time, Washington has stressed the need for Tokyo and its neighbors to bury historical animosities exacerbated by the war.
Abe's statement comes as he pushes for a more robust defense policy through measures domestic critics say violate Japan's pacifist constitution. Public doubts about the bills have triggered a slide in Abe's approval ratings to below 40 percent.
Abe's conservative political allies have urged him to end what they see as a humiliating cycle of apologies that distracts from Japan's post-war record of peace.
"In Japan, the post-war generations now exceed 80 per cent of its population. We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize", he said.
"Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past".
Abe, who referred to the wartime sufferings of the Chinese in his statement, said he hoped Beijing would recognize Japan's "candid feelings" and that he hoped to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping again if the opportunity arose.
But he told the news conference that attempts to "change the status quo by force" were unacceptable. Tokyo and Beijing are feuding over tiny East China Sea isles, while Japan is also wary of China's military assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Abe said Japan should "never forget that there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured".
But he made no direct reference to the "comfort women", a euphemism for the girls and women - many of them Korean - forced into prostitution during wartime at Japanese military brothels.
Tokyo and Seoul have long been at odds over the issue of comfort women, with South Korea saying Japan has not done enough to atone for their suffering despite a 1993 apology that recognized authorities' involvement in coercing the women.
South Korea said it would respond after reviewing Abe's remarks, but its foreign minister said Japan's sincere actions were "more important than anything", its Foreign Ministry said, suggesting that words alone were not enough.
Abe said that Japan took the "wrong course and advanced along the road to war", but his statement did not specifically refer to what a report by his own advisers had called Tokyo's "aggression" in China after 1931.
Abe told the news conference that the question of whether a specific act was considered aggression should be left to historians.
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing, Elaine Lies in Tokyo, Ju-min Park in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; editing by Nick Macfie and G Crosse