People release doves as a symbol of peace at the Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead in Tokyo, on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, August 15, 2013. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent an aide to a tree-lined shrine in downtown Tokyo on Thursday with instructions to deliver a tree branch as a ritual offering on his behalf. The aide, Koichi Hagiuda, told reporters later that the prime minister was sorry he could not go in person but had made a “general judgment” to stay away.

For Abe, the decision to avoid Yasukuni Shrine — a religious site that honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 war criminals — marked his latest attempt to balance competing goals: playing to his conservative base while also repairing ties with Japan’s neighbors.

Because of the war criminals enshrined there, and because of an on-site museum that plays down the brutality of Japan’s Imperial Army, Yasukuni has long served as ground zero in Asia’s vexing debate about decades-old history.

Leaders in China and South Korea believe Japan has never made proper amends for invading and occupying their territories in the run-up to World War II. Conservatives in Japan, Abe among them, tend to view that era as a high point of Japanese glory and ambition — all while rationalizing the army’s systematic use of sex slaves.

How Abe addresses Japan’s history, analysts say, will largely define relations with China and South Korea in coming years. On Thursday, the 68th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, Abe appeared to search for a narrow middle ground, trying to demonstrate his personal support for the shrine without causing diplomatic damage.

Abe has spoken admiringly of Yasukuni many times, and he visited it in October, two months before his election as prime minister. But a return to the shrine as Japan’s leader would have sparked anger not just from Seoul and Beijing but also from Washington, which is pressing Abe to help reduce regional tensions.

Still, Abe made little headway with his show of relative restraint. Two of his cabinet ministers paid their respects at Yasukuni, as did dozens of lower-ranking lawmakers. A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman called those visits “deplorable,” adding that the shrine “glorifies the history of imperialistic invasion.” Meanwhile, China summoned the Japanese ambassador in Beijing to protest the visits.

In Seoul, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, addressing the nation to mark its Liberation Day, said historical issues have cast a “dark shadow” over relations with Japan. “In the absence of courage enough to face the past,” Park said, “it will be difficult to build the trust necessary for our future.”

Park acknowledged, however, that many Japanese take issue with Abe’s historical narrative, viewing World War II and the period preceding it as exemplifying military ambition run amok.

One high-profile politician has already paid a price for controversial comments about the past. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, known for his nationalist views, said in May that the sex slaves — euphemistically called “comfort women” — who were forcibly recruited by Japanese occupation troops in China, Korea, the Philippines and other Asian nations were a “necessary” part of war. He was lambasted on Japanese Web sites and his party was trounced in upper-house elections in July, turning from a middling power into an afterthought.

Abe has preserved his own popularity by focusing on economic issues during his nine months in office. Some analysts fear that, emboldened by his ruling party’s parliamentary victory last month, he might now be more willing to court controversy by talking about Japan’s past. If he does, it could further exacerbate tensions between South Korea and Japan, the United States’ two closest allies in the region, while complicating Washington-brokered attempts at military coordination.

“The best that Japan and South Korea can arrange for now is a [verbal] cease-fire — no opening of these historical issues by Abe and instead focusing on positive areas of cooperation,” said Michael J. Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But there is no simple concluding arrangement that will make this go away.”

In the past year, Japan’s relations with China and South Korea have sharply deteriorated, with historical differences at the root. Japan is locked into a naval cat-and-mouse game with China around a string of disputed islands. South Korea and Japan have their own territorial dispute, although it is far less volatile. Their relationship has suffered more from contentious rhetoric and symbolic gestures by politicians.

Both Abe and Park, who took office in February, are hemmed in by domestic skepticism. Polls suggest surging distrust between Japanese and South Koreans. Park and Abe have not held a summit or shown interest in doing so, breaking a tradition of meetings between Japanese and South Korean leaders soon after taking office. Park has proposed a multilateral dialogue for peace in northeast Asia while also taking swipes at Japan, calling it “blind to the past.”

“If you close a door to a leader [like Abe] in a systematic way, how can you lead a so-called northeast Asian peace process?” said Bong Young-shik, a senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “You can’t only deal with countries you like.”

William Wan in Beijing contributed to this report.