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TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stayed away from a Tokyo war shrine on the anniversary of Japan's World War Two surrender on Wednesday, avoiding friction with Asian neighbors who see it as a symbol of the nation's past militarism.
But his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, and one of Abe's cabinet ministers joined the thousands of relatives of the war dead and right-wing activists who flocked in scorching heat to pay their respects at Yasukuni shrine.
Supporters shouted "Banzai!", or "Long Life!", as Koizumi, whose visits to Yasukuni as prime minister chilled ties with China and South Korea, appeared at the shrine in morning dress.
Yasukuni honors Japanese World War Two leaders convicted by an Allied tribunal as war criminals, along with 2.5 million war dead. Leaders' visits there divide domestic opinion as well as angering countries that suffered under Japan's military aggression in the early 20th century.
All but one of Abe's cabinet members -- gender equality minister Sanae Takaichi -- avoided paying respects at Yasukuni on the emotive anniversary.
"I don't think Abe should come because of all the trouble it causes," said Kanai Fukuo, 74, who was visiting the shrine early on Wednesday. "Of course he has the right ... But it's just not worth it."
Other visitors were keen to see Abe attend.
"I hope Abe comes," said Takenori Honjo, 45, who was also at the shrine. "We don't need to worry about China or Korea, because this is our culture. It is common sense to respect our ancestors. It is more than ceremony, this is our foundation. Without Yasukuni, we feel like we lose our base."
Abe moved swiftly after taking office last September to mend damaged ties with Japan's neighbors and analysts say he is unlikely to risk the progress made by paying homage on the anniversary.
But Abe came under fire earlier this year for saying there was no evidence the military or government were involved in abducting women into forced prostitution for soldiers before and during World War Two.
He later apologized to the women, but risked further controversy after saying on Tuesday he would meet the son of an Indian judge who served on the postwar Allied tribunal.
Abe denied that his meeting with the son of Radhabinod Pal, who opposed punishing Japanese convicted as war criminals, during a visit to India next week would provoke protests from other Asian countries.
Although he did not show up at Yasukuni, Abe paid his respects at a secular memorial near the shrine and attended a government-sponsored remembrance ceremony alongside Emperor Akihito.
"Our country inflicted grave damage and suffering on people of many countries, especially Asian countries. On behalf of the Japanese people, I deeply reflect on it and express my sincere condolence to those who sacrificed their lives," Abe told the ceremony.
"We must not forget the fact that friendly relations with all countries and regions of the world have ensured Japan's stability in the post-war era."
A cross-party group of about 50 pro-Yasukuni lawmakers visited the shrine on Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno