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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent an offering to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo for its annual autumn festival starting Thursday but refrained from visiting amid frayed ties with China and South Korea.
Abe paid 50,000 yen ($500) as prime minister for a "masakaki" tree offering traditionally used in Shinto rituals, according to people close to him and the shrine, which honors Class-A World War II criminals along with the war dead.
The money was paid by Wednesday and the decoration placed at the altar Thursday, the first day of the four-day festival through Sunday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on a television program that it is natural to pay respect to those who died for a country and that the prime minister decided not to visit from "a broad perspective."
Still, the government's top spokesman did not completely rule out a future visit by Abe, saying that his desire to do so "has not changed at all."
Abe apparently treaded carefully to avoid further exacerbating ties with China and South Korea, which regard the shrine as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, while also taking heed of his conservative support base.
China's reaction to his ritual offering this time has been relatively calm, with the official Xinhua News Agency and the state-owned China Central Television reporting the news matter-of-factly.
The manner of reporting was less pointed than the last time Abe made a masakaki offering to Yasukuni.
During the shrine's spring festival in April, Abe offered a masakaki under the title of prime minister. On Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, he paid fees for a ritual as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, also with his own money.
Abe, who returned to power last December five years after his first one-year stint, has not visited the shrine as premier and refused to say whether and when he would do so. He has taken the position that members of his Cabinet should decide for themselves whether to visit.
Among Cabinet members, health minister Norihisa Tamura also paid out of his own pocket and presented an offering Thursday, people close to him said. Two more Cabinet ministers are seen likely to visit by Sunday.
The prime minister's ritual offerings and visits to the controversial shrine have previously drawn sharp criticism from China and South Korea, with whose leaders he has yet to hold summit talks. Prospects appear slim for a trilateral summit, which had been held annually from 2008 to 2011, before the end of the year. The summit, due to be hosted by Seoul this year, has been delayed indefinitely.
Japan and China have been at loggerheads over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China claims as Diaoyu. Chinese patrol ships have continued to enter waters near the uninhabited islands in protest against the Japanese government's purchase last September of the major portion of them from a private owner.
Abe has reiterated that Japan will not make concessions on sovereignty, but added "the door to dialogue is always open."
At the heart of bilateral frictions between Tokyo and Seoul are a group of South Korean-administered islets in the Sea of Japan called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean.
The two countries also have divergent perceptions of wartime history and the issue of South Korean women who provided sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.
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