Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided not to visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary Thursday of Japan's surrender in World War II, sources close to him said Wednesday, apparently out of concern that his visit would further worsen ties with China and South Korea.
But Abe will instead make a ritual offering to the Shinto shrine in Tokyo, the sources said, in a move that would make an appeal to his conservative supporters but is also likely to trigger criticism from those neighboring countries, which suffered from Japan's wartime brutality.
Abe has refused to comment on whether he would visit the shrine on the anniversary of its surrender in 1945. Yasukuni enshrines convicted Class-A war criminals along with Japan's war dead.
But he told reporters last week, "I haven't changed my mind," in reference to his desire to keep paying respects to those who sacrificed their lives for the state during the war.
The premier has also said he would not instruct his ministers either to visit or not to visit the shrine. A few Cabinet members have suggested they will make a visit Thursday, including Keiji Furuya, state minister in charge of North Korea's past abductions of Japanese nationals, and administrative reform minister Tomomi Inada.
Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who sparked criticism from Beijing and Seoul by visiting Yasukuni in April, has indicated he will not go this time.
Past visits by prime ministers and lawmakers to the shrine, seen as an act of glossing over Japanese past militarism, have drawn outcries most notably in China and South Korea. In both countries, sentiment toward Japan has deteriorated amid criticism over the historical perceptions of some lawmakers as well as territorial rows.
Given the prospect that Abe will not visit Yasukuni on Thursday, Chinese government sources welcomed the decision not to cross the "red line."
But Chinese state media unfavorably reported about the possibility for Abe to make a ritual offering to Yasukuni. He "will offer a sacrifice to the notorious shrine," Xinhua News Agency said.
Abe is expected to offer a sacred tree branch to the shrine, paying out of his own pocket as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, not as prime minister.
He made a similar offering in the shrine's spring festival in April 2007 under the name of prime minister. But Abe did not visit Yasukuni during his first stint as premier in the year through September 2007, an omission he later described as "extremely regrettable."
He was then trying to improve ties with China and South Korea, damaged by the Yasukuni visits by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, who made a visit every year while in office from 2001 to 2006.
Abe increasingly suggested a desire to visit Yasukuni after taking office for the second time last December, and dedicated a potted tree to the shrine in April as an offering for the spring festival.
He has kept the neighbors nervous about his views on Japan's history by pursuing policies that could be taken as a shift to the right, including potential revision of the country's pacifist Constitution to enhance its defense capabilities.
The stance has even prompted the United States, Japan's key ally, to express its desire that Abe not cause any escalation in tensions in Asia, according to Japanese government sources.