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Inside a packed memorial hall, there were solemn prayers for peace. Not far away, old military songs blared from a loudspeaker.

Japan's observances Thursday of the 51st anniversary of its World War II surrender were marked by the same mixed feelings about the war that have beset the country since the conflict's end.Some here believe Japan has nothing to apologize for; others think the country has failed to atone for the suffering it inflicted.

While the glare of world attention that accompanied last year's landmark 50th anniversary has faded, the past can still spark bitter debate here.

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto last month enraged Japan's Asian neighbors with a visit to Yasukuni, a controversial Shinto shrine where war dead, including executed war criminals, are enshrined as deities.

Thursday Hashimoto stayed away from the shrine, but he did not publicly discourage others in his government from paying homage there. At least five Cabinet members did so.

At the shrine, old military anthems echoed from loudspeakers, and some of those who thronged there to pray wore old Imperial Army uniforms and waved the former army banner.

Hashimoto, who has long been active in veterans' affairs, trod a delicate line in remarks delivered at an elaborate war-memorial ceremony presided over by the emperor and empress.

He praised Imperial Army soldiers who fought for "the tranquility of their country," but also repeated a set phrase used each year acknowledging that the war caused "suffering" for Asian countries.

Many inside and outside Japan feel the government should pay direct reparations to surviving Asian victims, including women conscripted to work in wartime brothels, slave laborers who worked in Japan's mines and factories, and victims of chemical warfare.

"Our most urgent task, even more than half a century after the end of the war, is to accomplish our long-overdue responsibility to make war reparation to (Asian victims)," said Takemitsu Ogawa, who was one of about 50 people taking part in a protest staged outside the hall where the official memorial service was held. Ogawa lost his brothers in the war.

Inside the hall, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, clad in formal mourning clothes, bowed deeply before a huge bank of yellow-and-white chrysanthemums and an enormous rising-sun flag.

A moment of silent prayer for war dead was timed to mark the moment - at noon, on Aug. 15, 1945 - when Akihito's father, Hirohito, went on the radio to announce that Japan was surrendering.

In contrast to the mournful atmosphere here, elsewhere in Asia the day is celebrated as marking liberation from brutal Japanese wartime rule.

But lingering bitterness spilled over into anniversary commentary about Japan's war accountability, especially its refusal to make direct official reparations to women forced to serve as prostitutes for the Imperial Army.

"Japan is trying to dodge its responsibility for the indelible, monstrous crimes, revealing their brazen-facedness and craftiness," North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said.

China's official Xinhua news agency noted in a commentary that "some Japanese tend to turn a blind eye to Japan's history of aggression and . . . the enormous atrocities the Japanese army inflicted on the people of other Asian nations in World War II."