Tokyo: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to a shrine for war dead on Monday, the anniversary of Japan`s World War Two defeat, but did not visit the shrine, which is seen in China and South Korea as a symbol of Tokyo`s wartime militarism.
Visits to Yasukuni Shrine by top Japanese politicians outrage China and South Korea because it honours 14 Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, along with war dead.
Ties between China and Japan, Asia`s two largest economies, were strained in recent days after a growing number of Chinese coastguard and other government ships sailed near disputed islets in the East China Sea.
New Defence Minister Tomomi Inada, who has been accused by China of recklessly misrepresenting history after she declined to say whether Japanese troops massacred civilians in China during World War Two, was visiting troops in Djibouti and unable able to go to the shrine as she has in the past.
Abe has not visited the shrine in person since December 2013, but has instead sent ritual offerings.
"He told me to come and my visit was out of respect to those who gave their lives for the country," said Yasutoshi Nishimura, an aide in Abe`s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who gave the offering in Abe`s name as LDP president rather than premier.
EMPEROR`S "DEEP REMORSE"
Emperor Akihito, speaking at a ceremony honouring victims of the war, expressed "deep remorse" over the conflict fought in the name of his father, Hirohito. He first used the phrase at the memorial service last year on the 70th anniversary of the war`s end. Some saw it as a subtle rebuke to the conservative Abe, who favours a less apologetic tone.
"Reflecting on our past with a feeling of deep remorse, I earnestly hope the ravages of war will never be repeated," said Akihito, 82. The emperor hinted in a rare video address last week at wanting to abdicate in a few years.
Abe vowed at the same ceremony that Japan would keep working for world peace.
"Going forward, and sticking to this firm pledge while facing history with humility, we will make every effort to contribute to world peace and prosperity and the realization of a world where everyone can live without fear," he said.
Among the roughly 70 lawmakers who visited Yasukuni Shrine were Olympics Minister Tamayo Marukawa and Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of popular prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, himself often tipped as a future premier.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on the visits, saying it was a private matter for each individual.
Suga also said a morning visit by South Korean lawmakers to a disputed set of islands, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea, was "extremely regrettable" and that Japan would protest strongly.
(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Takaya Yamaguchi, Writing by Elaine Lies and Linda Sieg,; Editing by Paul Tait)