After taking over as prime minister in December, Abe focused mainly on improving Japan's slumping economy, but he recently has shifted his focus to pursuing his conservative agenda. Sunday's marking of the 61st anniversary of the regaining of sovereignty is seen as a step to drum up support for revising Japan's US-inspired pacifist constitution. Abe's conservative party has for years denounced the current constitution as one imposed by the United States, which occupied Japan from the end of World War II until 1952.
Last month, the Cabinet approved a plan by the ruling party to designate April 28 as Japan's "sovereignty recovery" day, and Sunday's ceremony was the first government-sponsored event to mark the day. Similar events were previously held privately among ultra-conservative lawmakers, mainly from Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, and their right-wing supporters.
Sunday's proceedings were filled with nationalistic rituals considered symbols of the imperial warship that drove Japan to its 20th century aggression in Asia. The ceremony started with the singing of the controversial national anthem "Kimigayo" ("His Majesty's Reign"), and ended with "Banzai!" cheers for Emperor Akihito. There also was a huge rising sun decoration on the center stage.
During the ceremony, Abe urged Japanese to mark the day in their hearts, pledging to make Japan a stronger country full of national pride. He said that 61 years ago, Japanese had high hopes and were committed to making a better Japan, adding that people today must live up to the expectations.
"We are obliged to make Japan strong and tough so our country becomes one that the rest of the world can count on," Abe said. He said he was seeking to make Japan a better and more "beautiful nation," a favorite phrase of his, but one critics say has a nationalistic undertone.
Keio University political scientist Morihide Katayama said the event was part of Abe's "cheap gimmick" to build unity under nationalistic symbols, such as the national flag, anthem and military. In an interview published Saturday in the Asahi newspaper, he said the ceremony was meant to convince the public that there is no real independence for Japan without revising the occupation-imposed constitution.
The ceremony, held at a parliamentary museum in Tokyo, was the latest in a series of nationalistic events and remarks that have invited harsh reactions from neighboring countries that suffered from Japan's wartime aggression.
Visits by several government ministers and nearly 170 lawmakers to Tokyo's war shrine this month enraged China and South Korea. Japanese political leaders' visits to the Yasukuni Shrine - which memorializes 2.3 million war dead, including 14 wartime leaders convicted of war crimes - have been a constant point of contention with those countries.
Abe also infuriated China and South Korea by saying that there is no clear definition of "aggression" and that Japan will not "succumb to any threat."
"Why did Japan once lose sovereignty in the first place? ... Isn't it because Japan chose the wrong way?" the Nikkei business daily said in a Sunday editorial. "Japan has kept its wartime responsibility unclear. That has created differences in history interpretation, causing disputes with neighboring countries 68 years after the end of the war."
Abe has also campaigned for recognizing Japan's Self-Defense Forces as a full-fledged national military, for revising Japan's past apologies for atrocities committed by its Imperial Army before and during World War II, and for upgrading the emperor's status to head of state, as outlined in the Liberal Democratic Party platform. The party's draft constitution also removes the clause that guarantees basic human rights as universal and inviolable.
The ceremony invited harsh criticism from the southern island of Okinawa, where US occupation continued until 1972. In the Okinawan city of Ginowan, thousands of protesters staged a rally in a park to protest the ceremony.
Okinawa is home to nearly three-quarters of the US troops stationed in Japan under a bilateral treaty, causing deep-rooted anti-US sentiment on the island, as well as distrust toward Japan's central government for not doing enough to relieve the island's burden. Okinawan Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima boycotted Sunday's ceremony.
Japan simultaneously signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the security treaty with the US in 1951, ending US occupation on most parts of the mainland seven months later but allowing US troops on Okinawa to date.
Okinawa calls April 28 "the day of humiliation."