The Japanese government on Sunday commemorated the day the country recovered its sovereignty in 1952 after its defeat in World War II, amid opposition from Okinawa, which remained under U.S. control for another 20 years.
At the government-sponsored ceremony at the Parliamentary Museum in Tokyo, attended by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko as well as around 390 lawmakers, prefectural governors and government officials, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he wished to make the day one to renew people's resolve and hope for the future by keeping in mind the steps Japan has taken since 1952.
Abe, known for his nationalistic views, also said his generation has a responsibility "to make Japan stronger and create a country that people around the world can rely on."
Japan recovered its sovereignty on April 28, 1952, when the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect, ending World War II and the seven-year occupation by the U.S.-led Allied Forces.
Okinawa opposed holding the ceremony as April 28 is referred to in the southernmost island prefecture as a "day of insult," when the prefecture was cut off from the mainland and forced to remain under U.S. control until its reversion to Japan in 1972.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima skipped the ceremony in Tokyo in consideration of local opposition to the event. Deputy Gov. Kurayoshi Takara attended the event in place of Nakaima, joining governors from across the country.
Okinawa Prefecture assembly members from opposition political groups staged a rally in a park in the city of Ginowan in Okinawa at the same time the ceremony in Tokyo commenced, with around 10,000 people participating in the protest, according to the organizer.
Even after its reversion, Okinawa, despite accounting for less than 1 percent of the country's land area, continues to host more than 70 percent of U.S. military forces in Japan, prompting locals to urge the bases to be moved out of the prefecture.
The ceremony reflected Abe's desire to reform the country's Constitution to boost the country's defense capabilities, among other conservative agenda items.
Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pushed to revise the Constitution, saying it was drafted under the strong influence of the United States.
The event came as Japan's territorial sovereignty is being challenged, with Chinese vessels repeatedly intruding into Japanese waters near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The Japan-administered islets are also claimed by Beijing, which refers to them as Diaoyu.
Tokyo is also asserting its sovereignty over South Korean-controlled islands in the Sea of Japan and is pushing to settle a dispute over Russia-held islands off Hokkaido.
In his speech, Abe said he is seeking to make Japan a more "beautiful nation," a term he employed during his previous stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007. The term drew criticism for having a nationalistic undertone.
His comments came after some of his Cabinet members and a large number of Japanese parliamentarians visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the war dead along with Class-A war criminals from World War II, a week ago.
The visits angered China and South Korea, which suffered from Japan's wartime aggression and see the shrine as a symbol of the country's past militarism.
Abe, who did not visit the shrine but made an offering, has said he sees no problem with the visits and it is a "matter of course" to respect those who sacrificed their lives for the country.
At the ceremony, Abe called on younger generations to think deeply about the pain that Okinawa experienced until its reunification with the country.
Okinawa Deputy Gov. Takara told reporters after the ceremony, "It was the right decision that I attended (in place of the governor) because the people of Okinawa have complex feelings" about the day, but indicated that he understood that Abe, in his speech, was trying to "face up to the problems of Okinawa."
The government's decision to invite the emperor and empress to the ceremony also drew criticism from opposition parties that said the imperial couple were being used for political purposes. The emperor and empress did not make speeches.
Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii had called on the government to cancel the event, arguing that the attendance of the emperor at a ceremony held amid a lack of national consensus went against a key principle of the Constitution, which states that the emperor is the symbol of the nation.
Lawmakers, including Abe, and some other participants at the event gave a traditional shout of "Tenno Heika Banzai" (Long live the Emperor) as the emperor and empress left the ceremony.
The shout, often made during celebratory occasions and to praise the emperor, created confusion and drew criticism from other participants.
Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the New Komeito party, the junior coalition ally of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, complained, "I doubt the action was based on the significance of the ceremony," adding the ceremony was intended to commemorate Japan's independence with its Constitution stipulating that "sovereignty resides with the people."
Writer Keiko Ochiai said, "It just shows a lack of imagination for those who are deeply hurt and feel sad because of the ceremony," referring to the people of Okinawa, while the Okinawa deputy governor said, "I didn't think it was necessary to do so on this occasion."
In its campaign platform for the general election last December, the conservative LDP pledged to hold a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of Japan's restoration of sovereignty and its return to the international community.
Prior to the event, Abe said a ceremony would help the public to "recognize" that Japan regained independence following its occupation by Allied forces after its surrender in World War II on Aug. 15, 1945.