TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Emperor Akihito, whose efforts to soothe Asia's bitter wartime memories have been central to his 20 years on the throne, said his biggest worry is that future generations in his country will forget the past.
Akihito also told a news conference marking Thursday's anniversary of his ascension that he thought his father, the late Emperor Hirohito, was reluctant about the war that was fought in his name and memories of which still bedevil ties with China and other Asian countries invaded, occupied or colonized by Japan.
Asked if he had any concerns about the country's future, Akihito, 75, mentioned Japan's rapidly aging population and shaky economy, but said he was more worried about his people's understanding of history.
"I am rather worried that past history may be gradually forgotten," he said at a news conference at Tokyo's Imperial Palace with his wife of 50 years, Empress Michiko.
"I think it is important to thoroughly know past historical facts and to prepare for the future."
Akihito's remarks coincide with a push by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party took power in September, to improve ties with the rest of Asia.
The Democrats have shown a greater willingness to face up to Japan's wartime aggression than many in their ousted rival, the Liberal Democratic Party. Critics accuse ultra-conservative politicians in both parties of trying to whitewash the past.
If memories fade before Japan forges a consensus about why the country went to war, ghosts of the past will keep haunting ties with countries in the region.
The role of Hirohito, once revered as divine but transformed after Japan's defeat in World War Two into a symbol of the country's dedication to peace and democracy, has long been surrounded by controversy.
Akihito portrayed his father, known after his death as Emperor Showa, as an advocate of peace.
"I presume that for Emperor Showa, who had visited the Verdun battlefield of World War One and who took to heart the importance of peace as he saw the tragic site of war, it was a truly reluctant history," he said of the events leading to World War Two.
Many people around the world, however, still associate Hirohito with Japan's military campaigns in the early 20th century that were carried out in his name.
The soft-spoken Akihito's ascension to the throne in 1989 opened the way for the royal family to help reconcile Japan with its former colonies, although diplomatic ties have been frayed by issues such as territorial rights and content in history texts.
In 1992, Akihito became the first Japanese emperor to visit China, where he made a statement of regret about the war.
He has also expressed feelings of kinship with Koreans, where one of his ancestors was born.
Editing by Dean Yates