TOKYO (Reuters) – 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.
“The leader wanted to pass along his prayers for the people who died in the war and apologise for not making a personal visit,” Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) executive Koichi Hagiuda said after making an offering Abe’s behalf.
“He considered from various angles and made a general judgement not to come to pray today,” Hagiuda said. “He made an offering as Shinzo Abe, the 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 in waters close to Japan, which some Japanese media speculated 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.
Japanese conservatives say it is only natural to honour the war dead and deny 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 support base.
“I came as a Japanese citizen to pray here for those who sacrificed their lives,” said Keiji Furuya, a minister whose portfolios include the national public safety commission, after paying his respects at the shrine in central Tokyo.
“Paying homage to the war dead is a purely domestic matter and it’s not for other countries to criticize us or intervene in these matters.”
Internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo also visited the shrine, and a large group of conservative lawmakers is expected to pay their respects, including a senior LDP executive.
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 leaders’ summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japan’s relations with its neighbours remain fraught.
A crowd, including pensioners and school children, entered the shrine complex as it opened at 6 a.m., some wearing dark suits and others in morning jogging outfits, walking quietly through the massive “torii” gate as cicadas buzzed in the trees.
“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, a 70-year-old pensioner.
“It’s a great shame that the 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 that Japan has been signalling it wants to hold.
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 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.
Pilgrimages to Yasukuni by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during his 2001-2006 term sent Sino-Japanese ties into a deep chill.
The deeply conservative Abe repaired 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 U.S.-drafted charter have raised concerns in China, while Japan is worried about Beijing’s military build-up and its maritime ambitions.