TOKYO - Deep remorse and heartfelt apology. They may be just words, but whether Japan's premier uses them in a war anniversary speech could dictate future relations with the country's Asian neighbours.
On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers his closely-watched remarks in a ritual that has seen previous Japanese leaders explicitly apologise for Tokyo's 20th century militarism.
But 60-year-old nationalist - criticised by some for playing down Japan's wartime record and trying to expand the role of the military - has been vague so far on his statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
And what he says could either help pacify relations with China and Korea, which were victims of Japan's brutal march across Asia, or send ties plummeting to a new low.
"The prospect for Japan's relationship with China and South Korea remains uncertain, partially due to (Abe's) view of history," said Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who teaches international politics at the University of Niigata Prefecture.
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.
His 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine - seen by Japan's neighbours as a potent symbol of its militarist past - sent relations with Beijing and Seoul to their lowest point in decades, earning a rebuke from close ally Washington and aggravating simmering territorial tensions.
The visit dented Abe's bid to hold summit talks with China's President Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart.
At a later meeting, the Chinese leader told Abe that he hoped "Japan will send a positive message by earnestly responding to concerns in Asian countries and facing history squarely".
The issue has been top news in Japan, with public broadcaster NHK reporting this week that an original draft of Abe's statement included the words "apology" and "aggression".
Those words appeared in a landmark 1995 statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama, who expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" over Japan's actions.
The so-called Murayama Statement, which became a benchmark for subsequent leaders' apologies, said Japan "through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations".
Abe himself has said only that he would express remorse and follow previous prime ministerial apologies "as a whole".
But Abe has repeatedly talked of the need for what he calls a "forward-looking attitude" that concentrates on the positive role pacifist Japan has played in Asia since its surrender in 1945.