TOKYO – Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent religious offerings Friday to a Tokyo shrine honoring the war dead including convicted wartime leaders, as dozens of lawmakers prayed at the site in a ceremony that has repeatedly drawn rebukes from Japan's neighbors.
The Yasukuni Shrine honors war criminals, including wartime leader Hideki Tojo, among the 2.5 million war dead. Many Asian victims of Japan's wartime atrocities, especially China and the Koreas, see the shrine as a symbol of militarism.
Abe last visited Yasukuni in December, triggering anger from China and South Korea.
On Friday, Abe sent a set of Shinto-style "masakaki" ornaments on the occasion marking the shrine's Oct. 17-20 autumn festival, one of three major events when Japan's conservatives typically pray there.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Abe made the gesture as a private citizen based on his personal belief.
A group of 110 lawmakers and 80 aides prayed at the shrine for the war dead. None of the Cabinet members have showed up so far Friday, though Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi told reporters Thursday that she would go. Health Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki offered religious ornaments similar to Abe's.
Abe's move signaled he chose to stay away from visiting the shrine. He is currently in Italy for the Asia-Europe Meeting and was scheduled to return home Saturday.
Japanese top officials have expressed desire for a first-ever meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping during an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing in November, but Beijing has rejected the suggestion. Abe's low-key approach of sending the offerings rather than visiting the shrine is seen as reflecting the hopes for meeting Xi next month.
Relations between the two Asian powers have also been compounded by territorial disputes over a group of Japan-controlled islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China.
Associated Press writer Kaori Hitomi in Tokyo contributed to this report.