Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed deep remorse over World War II and said previous national apologies would stand, but Asian nations that suffered under Tokyo's militarism were unmoved.
In a closely watched speech on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the nationalist premier appeared to tread a fine line between regret over Japanese wartime aggression and what his pacifist country had done since the end of the conflict.
"Japan has repeatedly expressed feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war ... we have consistently devoted ourselves to the peace and prosperity of the region since the end of the war," Abe said on Friday.
When speaking about China, Abe referred to "unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military" and said Tokyo "took the wrong course" in going to war.
The grandson of a wartime cabinet minister, Abe added the Japanese have "engraved in our hearts" the suffering of Asian neighbours, including South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
He expressed "profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences", and said this was also for millions of Japanese who died, some from the US atomic bombings.
But his speech did not sway officials in Beijing.
Late on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Japan had missed a chance to make a "sincere apology" for its actions.
Japan should have made "a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle," Hua added.
China says more than 20 million of its citizens died as a result of Japan's invasion, occupation and atrocities, while Tokyo colonised the Korean peninsula for 35 years until 1945.
Initial media reaction in South Korea was also largely negative, with television analysts noting there was no explicit apology for Japan's wartime aggression.
"Abe skips his own apology," ran the headline on the national Yonhap news agency.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se received a call from his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida to explain the message, his ministry said.
Yun responded that Seoul wanted to see Japan's "sincere action" regarding historical issues, the ministry said.
In North Korea, the foreign ministry described his speech as "an unpardonable mockery of the Korean people," in a statement released by state news agency KCNA.
Abe's expressions of remorse were not an "honest admission and apology" for the "monstrous crimes and unspeakable damage done," it said.
Abe has made waves by quibbling over the definition of "invade", and provoked anger by downplaying Tokyo's formalised system of sex slavery in military brothels.
Controversially, the prime minister said future generations of Japanese should not have to apologise for its past.
"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.
The United States, for its part, welcomed Abe's statement "as well as his commitment to uphold past Japanese government statements on history," National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.