TOKYO A Japanese cabinet minister paid respects to the nation's war dead at a controversial shrine seen as a symbol of Japan's past militarism on Thursday, a move likely to anger China and risk undermining recent tentative diplomatic overtures by Tokyo.
Japanese internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo's visit to Yasukuni Shrine on the 68th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two will likely prompt sharp rebukes from Beijing and Seoul because the shrine honors Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal along with the nation's war dead.
Bitter memories of Japanese past militarism run deep in China and South Korea and despite close economic ties and recent calls by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a leaders' summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japan's relations with its Asian neighbors remain fraught.
Abe - who is expected to skip a personal visit but may make a ritual offering to the shrine through a representative of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) later in the day - is treading a fine line between trying to mend ties with Asian neighbors and appealing to his conservative support base.
Many in the region see Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan's past militarism since 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honored there along with the nation's war dead.
Abe and other conservatives say it is only natural to pay their respects at Yasukuni to those who died for their country.
Tokyo hopes, however, 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 that Japan has been signaling it wants to hold.
A long-running dispute over rival claims to uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, intensified last September after the Japanese government under Abe's predecessor bought the isles from a private Japanese citizen.
Feuding over the islands and wartime history, combined with regional rivalry and mutual public mistrust, suggest that a leaders' summit is unlikely any time soon, officials involved in behind-the-scenes talks between Beijing and Tokyo told Reuters.
At least two cabinet members and a ruling party executive are likely to visit the shrine in central Tokyo, prompting China's Foreign Ministry to say last week that visits by Japanese political leaders were unacceptable in any form.
A large group of conservative lawmakers is also expected to pay their respects.
Pilgrimages by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Yasukuni during his 2001-2006 term in office sent Sino-Japanese ties into a deep chill. The deeply conservative Abe, who succeeded Koizumi, repaired relations by staying away from the shrine during his short first term, but later said he regretted not paying his respects as premier.
(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Linda Sieg and Richard Pullin)