Japan's crown prince has warned of the need to remember World War II "correctly," in a rare foray into an ideological debate as nationalist politicians seek to downplay the country's crimes.
Naruhito's mild-mannered broadside was being interpreted in some circles as a rebuke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a key figure in the right-wing drive to minimize the significance of Japan’s institutionalized system of wartime sex slavery.
"Today when memories of war are set to fade, I reckon it is important to look back on our past with modesty and pass down correctly the miserable experience and the historic path Japan took from the generation that knew the war to the generation that doesn't," Naruhito said.
The comments, released Monday on the prince's 55th birthday, come as Abe's controversial views on history roil Japan’s relations with China and South Korea and cause unease in Washington.
Abe has said he wants a more sympathetic telling of the history of the first half of the 20th century, a period marked by Japan’s brutal expansionism in Asia and warring with China and the West.
The prime minister last week appointed a 16-member panel to advise him on a statement he is set to make later this year to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender.
Abe has said he will largely stand by Tokyo's previous apologies, but amid growing anger in China and South Korea over the system of using "comfort women," as the sex slaves are called, speculation is mounting that he will seek to downplay the issue.
Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women, predominantly from Korea, were forced into sexual slavery during World War II.
Some right-wing ideologues in Japan insist there is no proof that the Japanese state or its military were involved in the system on the Korean Peninsula, and they reject official expressions of guilt. That position, which is hardening, angers South Korea and China.
Both countries will be carefully watching any official pronouncement on the war.
While Japan's newspapers were neutral in their coverage of Naruhito's comments, social media users pounced on them as an implicit rebuke of the prime minister.
"This definitely contains a warning against Shinzo Abe, doesn't it?" tweeted @Kirokuro.
"It is a regular recognition [of history], but these comments by the crown prince stand out because Prime Minister Abe's views on the constitution and history are outrageous," said @kazu_w50.
Asked about his views on war and peace, Naruhito told reporters, "It was very painful that many precious lives were lost. Many people suffered and felt deep sorrow in the world, including in Japan."
"It is important that we never forget people who died in the war ... [and we must] deepen our appreciation for our past so as not to repeat the horrors of war and to foster a love of peace," he said.