TOKYO - A draft of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II includes the word "apology", a report said Monday, in a possible concession to China and South Korea.
The remarks - expected on Friday - will be carefully scrutinised by Japan's neighbours, who are waiting to see if Abe repeats earlier Japanese apologies for its 20th century militarism.
Public broadcaster NHK said an original draft of Abe's statement included the words "apology" and "aggression".
Those words appear 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 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".
Also Monday, the right-leaning Sankei newspaper said Abe would likely use the word "aggression", though not necessarily linking it to Japan's wartime actions.
"It is likely that he will touch on (aggression) as a universally unforgivable act," the paper said.
Abe's statement is expected a day before August 15, the date Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945.
The nationalist premier - who has been criticised by some for playing down Japan's wartime record and trying to expand the role of the military - said last week he would express "remorse" over the war.
He added that he would follow previous explicit prime ministerial apologies over the country's past "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 Japan has played - and continues to play - in Asia since its surrender in 1945.
That has set alarm bells ringing in China and Korea, which suffered under Japan's imperial expansion and are angered by any move to tone down apologies by previous leaders.
Abe - whose popularity has plunged in recent months - was treading a fine line, trying to please his right-wing base but also avoid being accused of picking a diplomatic fight, said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University.
If he uses the word "apology" then China and South Korea "would have to welcome it", Nakano said.
"But it's still not clear in what context the words will be used... he may be trying to do some damage control."
"Abe is apparently hoping to create his own statement, but he cannot afford to spark controversy."
The statement comes as Abe faces stiff criticism for efforts to expand the role of his pacifist country's so-called Self-Defence Forces.
The changes would allow them to engage in combat - in defence of an ally which has come under attack - for the first time since the war.
A constitution imposed by a post-war US occupation force prevented the military from fighting except in the nation's own self-defence.
Last week a government panel set up to advise on the wording of Abe's war statement condemned Japan's colonising of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945 and parts of China from 1931.
China says more than 20 million of its citizens died as a result of Japan's invasion, occupation and atrocities.
"The responsibilities of the Japanese government and military leaders from the 1930s and beyond are very serious indeed," said the panel composed mostly of academics and journalists.