Tokyo: Two Japanese Cabinet ministers visited a controversial war shrine on Friday in a move likely to aggravate already tense relations with neighbours China and South Korea, which see it as a symbol of Tokyo`s militarist past.
Dozens of other politicians were also expected to gather at the leafy site in downtown Tokyo later in the day, while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was widely expected to stay away as he looks to mend ties with Beijing and Seoul, sent a donation to the shrine through an aide.
The 145-year-old Shinto shrine honours some 2.5 million citizens who died in World War II and other conflicts, including 14 indicted war criminals such as General Hideki Tojo, who authorised the attack on Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the war.
Keiji Furuya, the chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, was the first minister to pay homage at the site on Friday -- the 69th anniversary of Japan`s surrender in World War II.
"It is natural to express my sincere condolences for the souls of those who sacrificed their lives for the country," he told reporters at the shrine.
Soon after Furuya, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo also visited the site.
Shindo`s grandfather was General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the figure sympathetically depicted by actor Ken Watanabe in Clint Eastwood`s film "Letters from Iwo Jima".
Under scorching sunshine, the shrine was also crowded with hundreds of ordinary people, including veterans in army uniforms carrying Japan`s "rising sun" national flags and former military flags.
Among the visitors, some people held white doves -- a symbol of peace -- at a morning ceremony. Many ordinary people visit the shrine to pay their respects to family and friends who died in combat.
But visits by Japanese politicians enrage neighbouring nations, which view them as an insult and a painful reminder of Tokyo`s aggression in the first half of the 20th century, including a brutal 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula.
On last year`s anniversary, some 100 lawmakers as well as three state ministers visited the shrine near the Imperial Palace.
Abe, known for his nationalist views, drew protests himself from China and South Korea when he visited the shrine last December at a time when Japan`s ties with the neighbouring countries were severely strained over territorial disputes and differences in historical perceptions.
The visit earned him a diplomatic slap on the wrist from the United States, a close ally, which said it was "disappointed" by the move.
China and Japan are embroiled in a bitter row over islands in the East China Sea, which has clouded Abe`s bid to hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a regional meeting in Beijing in November.
Abe and Xi, both nationalists, have not held a bilateral summit since they both came to power more than 18 months ago. The Japanese leader has also not held talks with his South Korean counterpart.
On last year`s anniversary, Abe broke with two decades of tradition by omitting any expression of remorse for Tokyo`s past aggression in Asia when he spoke at a ceremony attended by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
He was due to deliver this year`s speech at around noon local time (0300 GMT).
Japan`s hawkish premier has defended the visits to Yasukuni, saying they were no different than politicians going to war memorials in other countries.
But key ministers, including Abe`s deputy Taro Aso and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, have stayed away.
Since taking power in December 2012, Abe has mostly focused his attention on stoking the country`s economy, but he has also started to push for a more robust defence policy.
Last month, his Cabinet approved the right to allow its military to go into battle in defence of allies, a major shift for the Pacifist nation that came despite widespread public opposition.