TOKYO Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday sent a ritual offering to a Tokyo shrine to war dead but did not join cabinet ministers in a visit, seen as an effort to avoid further inflaming ties with China as he seeks a summit with Beijing.
Abe's offering to the Yasukuni Shrine on the 69th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two was still likely to anger China and South Korea, where bitter memories linger of Japan's actions before and during the war.
Abe visited the shrine in December, sharply chilling ties with China and South Korea. Sending the offering is part of a delicate dance between trying not to worsen tensions with both nations while upholding a conservative ideology that takes a less apologetic tone toward Japan's wartime past.
Koichi Hagiuda, an Abe aide and lawmaker, presented the ritual offering, which was made in Abe's name as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
"He wants to express his respect and to pay homage to the people who sacrificed their lives for the nation, while praying for a lasting peace," Hagiuda told reporters.
Tokyo hopes that if Abe stays away on the emotive anniversary it could send a signal to China of his desire to ease tensions and help pave the way for a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Recent tentative moves to meet have yet to bear fruit.
Ties between the two nations are strained over a host of issues, included a territorial row over a set of remote islands and China's declaration late last year of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea.
CABINET MINISTERS VISIT
The shrine honours 14 Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, as well as Japan's war dead.
Two cabinet ministers visited the shrine within hours of its giant gates opening, joining other lawmakers and scores of ordinary people.
"I think it's natural to pay homage to the people who sacrificed their precious lives for this country," said Keiji Furuya, whose portfolios include the National Public Safety Commission, told reporters at the shrine.
"I am a member of parliament but I am also a Japanese citizen, so while praying for world peace I offered my respects."
Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo, whose grandfather Tadamichi Kuribayashi led Japanese forces on Iwo Jima and featured in Clint Eastwood's movie "Letters from Iwo Jima", said he was not worried that his visit would cause diplomatic tension.
"Many valuable lives perished in the war. I came here to pray so that something like this will never happen again," he told reporters.
School children, suited businessmen and elderly people in mourning clothes bowed their heads and prayed under a blazing sun amid the buzz of cicadas. Men in military uniforms marched behind a Japanese flag and a banner honouring the Emperor.
Shigeyo Oketa, 80 years old and a maker of traditional geta sandals, said he had been visiting the Yasukuni shrine since his older brother was killed in battle in 1945.
"It's natural for us to come here, we're all human and we should pay respect," he said, cradling a black-and-white photo of his younger self and his mother. "It's none of any other countries' business. Everyone should just be friends."
(Writing by Elaine Lies Editing by Jeremy Laurence)