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 avoided visiting Yasukuni, apparently making an effort to mend ties with China and South Korea.
Abe arranged for an aide to take a monetary offering 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 the last war.
The premier told reporters that he would not say whether he would visit the shrine. But the aide, Koichi Hagiuda, said earlier that he delivered to the shrine Abe's message of regret at "being unable to make a visit today."
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 neighboring countries that suffered Japan's 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 visited the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Tokyo, where he laid flowers for unidentified Japanese who died overseas in World War II.
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 the intention to recover the ties with countries in the region. 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.