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TOKYO – In the steamy heat of mid-August, the tranquil, cherry tree-shaded grounds of Yasukuni Shrine in the heart of Tokyo seem an unlikely hotbed of provocation.
But visits by senior Japanese government officials to the shrine, whose grounds also house a war museum glorifying Japan's wartime past, routinely anger neighboring China and South Korea, highlighting lingering resentments 68 years after the end of World War II that Japan marked Thursday.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose hawkish views have raised concerns in the region, did not visit the shrine on the anniversary, but had an aide present an ornamental offering bought with his own money. He also laid flowers at a national cemetery dedicated to more than 352,000 unidentified war victims.
Two of his Cabinet members, decked out in morning suits, did pay their respects at the shrine Thursday, prompting China to summon the Japanese ambassador in Beijing to register a protest.
A shrine of Japan's indigenous Shinto religion, Yasukuni evokes bitter memories across Asia of Japan's colonial and wartime aggression. It honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including Class A war criminals such as Hideki Tojo, a prime minister during the war, who was executed in 1948.
Japan has repeatedly apologized for its wartime actions, but the shrine remains a flashpoint nearly 70 years after Emperor Hirohito issued his proclamation surrendering to Allied forces on Aug. 15, 1945.
North and South Korea marked the surrender anniversary Thursday with ceremonies of their own celebrating their independence from Japan's 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula. South Korean President Park Geun-hye urged Japanese leaders to "show brave leadership in healing wounds of the past."
Abe joined Emperor Akihito at a ceremony at a Tokyo indoor arena where they bowed deeply before a backdrop of white and yellow chrysanthemums in paying respects for the war dead.
"I pray for world peace and our country's further prosperity," Akihito said.
Abe has said he regrets not visiting Yasukuni on the anniversary during his first, one-year term in 2006-07. When asked if he would go this year, he told reporters, "Since it would become a political and diplomatic problem, I cannot tell you that."
Past public opinion polls have shown majorities of those asked support visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders, though the shrine is not as popular as other major Shinto sites.
"There are different opinions, but I am here today to honor the war dead because I believe we are here now thanks to those who fought for our country," said Akira Fujisada, a Tokyo resident, who traveled from a distant Tokyo suburb to pay his respects with his wife and one-year-old daughter.
Abe's support for revising Japan's pacifist constitution and raising the profile of its military are compounding the unease at a time of rising tensions over a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Japan and China.
Hackles rose also at the unveiling earlier this month of Japan's biggest warship since the end of the war. The Izumo, a flat-top destroyer, shares the same name as a warship in the Imperial Navy destroyed in an American attack in 1945.
"We call upon the Japanese side to honor their commitment to admit and reflect upon their history of invasion, act with care on relevant questions, and through concrete actions, win the trust of the people of Asian victim nations and international society," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement on the ministry's website. He said Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin had urgently summoned Japanese Ambassador Masato Kitera, lodged "solemn representations" and expressed "strong protest and severe condemnation."
In Seoul, South Korea, women who had been forced to work in wartime brothels of the Japanese army, and their supporters, rallied outside the Japanese Embassy, demanding apologies and compensation.
A group of four South Korean lawmakers traveled to Japan, planning to visit Yasukuni in protest Thursday. Police kept them away to prevent possible trouble with rightists in the vicinity. They instead held a brief protest a few blocks from the shrine.
Despite its apparent tranquility, Yasukuni remains a focus of nationalist pride and is closely associated with the monarchy, although royal family members have rarely visited. Akihito visited the shrine in 1975. He became emperor in 1989.
Yasukuni was created in 1869 to honor 3,588 loyalists who died the year before, when imperial forces overthrew centuries of feudal rule. Standing sentry is the bronze statue of the founder of Japan's modern army.
Its museum recounts in unapologetic detail Japan's military exploits over the past 150 years, including its occupation of much of Asia in the early 20th century.
The outbreak of war in East Asia in the late 1930s is attributed to attacks by Chinese partisans. Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor came after Tokyo concluded war was inevitable.
A very short display on the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, when the Japanese army invaded the city then called Nanking, raping, torturing and murdering tens of thousands of Chinese, mentions none of those atrocities. It instead emphasizes that Japanese troops were ordered to observe "strict military discipline" or be severely punished, and shows a picture of what it says are local residents "joyously welcoming the Imperial Troops."
Estimates on the number of dead in Nanking range widely, from 20,000 by right-wing Japanese historians to 300,000 by Chinese scholars.
Many Christian, Buddhist and civic groups also view visits to Yasukuni as a violation of the postwar Japanese Constitution, which mandates the separation of church and state and limits the role of the emperor to that of a symbolic figurehead.
Even today, the spirits of soldiers who die in the line of duty are enshrined in Yasukuni's "Symbolic Registry of Souls," whether they accept Shintoism or not.