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Tokyo - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to a controversial shrine for war dead on Thursday - the anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two - but did not visit in person in a effort to avoid inflaming tensions with Asian neighbours.
However, at least two cabinet ministers publicly paid their respects at Yasukuni Shrine, seen as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, which is likely to anger South Korea and China and risks undermining tentative diplomatic overtures to Beijing.
“I asked my special aide ... to make the offering on my behalf with a feeling of gratitude and respect for those who fought and gave their precious lives for their country,” Abe told reporters at the prime minister's office.
“As for when I might go to Yasukuni Shrine, or whether I will go or not, I will not say as this should not become a political or diplomatic issue,” he said after his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) aide conveyed the offering in the name of “Shinzo Abe, LDP leader.”
Chinese state media reported the country's military would conduct live fire drills for four days from Thursday in the East China Sea, though not close to Japan. Some Japanese media speculated this was timed to coincide with the Yasukuni visits.
Visits to the shrine by top politicians have outraged Beijing and Seoul in the past because the shrine honours 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, along with war dead.
“Can you imagine what the world would think of Germany if they paid homage to Nazi boss Hitler?” retired Chinese Major General Luo Yuan, one of China's most outspoken military figures, wrote in the influential tabloid the Global Times.
Japanese conservatives say it is only natural to honour the war dead and deny that doing so at Yasukuni glorifies the war.
That leaves Abe treading a fine line between trying to mend ties with neighbours and appealing to his conservative backers.
“Paying homage to the war dead is a purely domestic matter and it's not for other countries to criticise us or intervene in these matters, Keiji Furuya, a minister whose portfolios include the national public safety commission, said after paying his respects at the shrine in central Tokyo.
Internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo also visited the shrine as did a group of 89 lawmakers, including LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi and aides to another 101 MPs.
Bitter memories of Japan's past militarism run deep in China and South Korea. Despite close economic ties and recent calls by Abe for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japan's relations with its neighbours remain fraught because of territorial feuds and disputes over wartime history.
“Japanese leaders should show their courageous leadership to heal wounds of the past so that both countries can develop as a true cooperative partner,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said in a speech in Seoul marking the anniversary of the end of Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula.
Speaking later at a memorial service in Tokyo, Abe said: “We will carve out the nation's future that is full of hope, while facing history with humility and deeply engraving lessons to be learnt in our minds.”
Crowds of Japanese, including pensioners and schoolchildren, streamed through the shrine complex after it opened around dawn.
“My father died during the war, so I come here every year to pray for him and for the people who sacrificed their lives for the country,” said Mariko Matsuda, 70. “It's a great shame that Prime Minister Abe won't visit the shrine today.”
Tokyo hoped that if Abe stayed away, it could send a signal to China of his desire to ease tensions and help pave the way for a summit.
Beijing has made clear, though, that it will look askance at visits by Japanese political leaders in whatever form.
A dispute over rival claims to uninhabited islands in the East China Sea intensified last September after the previous Japanese government bought the isles from a Japanese citizen.
Feuding over the islands and wartime history, combined with regional rivalry and mutual mistrust, suggest that a summit is unlikely any time soon, officials involved in behind-the-scenes talks between Beijing and Tokyo told Reuters.
Visits to Yasukuni by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during his 2001-2006 term sent Sino-Japanese ties into a chill.
The deeply conservative Abe thawed relations by staying away from the shrine during his short first term as prime minister, but later said he regretted not paying his respects as premier and made a visit after becoming LDP leader last September.
Abe's agenda of bolstering the military and easing the limits of the pacifist post-war constitution on Japan's armed forces as a prelude to revising the US-drafted charter have raised concerns in China, while Japan is worried about Beijing's military build-up and its maritime ambitions. - Reuters