Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, but is likely to refrain from visiting in an effort to mend ties with China and South Korea.
Abe sent an aide to offer a sacred tree branch to the Shinto shrine in Tokyo, which is dedicated to 2.5 million mostly Japanese soldiers killed in past wars including convicted Class-A war criminals from World War II. The premier conveyed a message to the shrine saying he felt sorry for "being unable to visit today," the aide, Koichi Hagiuda, told reporters.
Abe made the offering as president of the Liberal Democratic Party rather than as prime minister, added Hagiuda, who is an LDP lawmaker.
Two of Abe's Cabinet ministers visited Yasukuni, meanwhile, in a move likely to trigger criticism from Japan's neighbors that suffered its wartime brutality. They are Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo, and Keiji Furuya, state minister in charge of North Korea's past abductions of Japanese citizens.
To mark the 68th anniversary of Japan's surrender, Abe is scheduled to visit the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Tokyo, where he will lay flowers for the unknown Japanese who died overseas during the war.
Yasukuni is seen by China and South Korea as a symbol of Japan's past militarism and previous visits to the shrine by Japanese political leaders have strained relations.
Abe will not visit the shrine on the anniversary, sources close to him have said, out of concern that it would further deteriorate ties with the regional partners, already strained by territorial rows as well as disagreements over perceptions of history.
Making the ritual offering to the shrine instead of visiting in person is apparently aimed at showing some restraint and intention to recover the ties with the neighbors. At the same time, it could help Abe make a gesture to his conservative supporters in Japan.
A perceived shift to the right by Tokyo under the leadership of Abe, who is pushing to revise the pacifist Constitution to enhance the country's defense capabilities, has unnerved its neighbors.
The deterioration in relations with China and South Korea has even prompted the United States, Japan's key ally, to express its desire for Abe to de-escalate the regional tension, according to Japanese government officials.