TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to the Yasukuni war shrine Friday, the 69th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat, but opted not to visit the controversial site in person.
His absence was widely viewed as a diplomatic move aimed at easing tensions with China, in the hopes of a first meeting with President Xi Jinping in November.
But China and South Korea, which both view Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan’s militaristic aggression during the first half of the 20th century, denounced Abe’s offering.
“Such a show of ‘compromise and sincerity,’ as some put it, is hardly acceptable, particularly given the recent barrage of remarks and moves by Japan’s rightist politicians which lay bare their unrepentant attitude toward World War II,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary.
“It has become a matter of urgency for the current Japanese leaders to truly reflect upon the lessons of history,” it said.
Japan says the shrine, in central Tokyo, simply honors those killed in war.
More than 80 Japanese politicians, including three cabinet ministers, visited Yasukuni on Friday.
“It’s only natural to extend sincere condolences to people who dedicated their lives to their country,” Keiji Furuya, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, said after visiting the shrine Friday morning. “I paid a visit to pray for peace,” he said, according to local reports.
Yoshitaka Shindo, minister of internal affairs and the grandson of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander during the battle of Iwo Jima, said his visit was “a private act and won’t cause any concern.” He told reporters, “I came here to pray with respects for the souls of the valuable lives perished in the war so that a war will never happen again.”
Yasukuni memorializes almost 2.5 million Japanese who died in wars since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, but the overwhelming majority — about 2.1 million — died in World War II. They include 14 people convicted of class-A war crimes by a 1948 Allied tribunal, including Gen. Hideki Tojo, the prime minister who authorized the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Abe went to the shrine in December, the first time in more than seven years that a Japanese prime minister had gone there, but instead of returning Friday, he sent a cash offering to the shrine with Koichi Hagiuda, an aide and lawmaker. The offering was ostensibly made by Abe as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party rather than as prime minister.
“Prime Minister Abe asked me to offer a sincere condolence with respects to the souls of the people who sacrificed their lives for the nation, while pledging for a lasting peace,” Hagiuda said.
Instead, Abe appeared at the government’s official memorial ceremony Friday, saying that Aug. 15 should be a day that Japan renews its pledge of peace.
“We face our history humbly, and, with those lessons learned deeply in our hearts, we will unlock the future of our country for current and future generations,” he said. “We will contribute to a lasting peace in the world with all our might.”
Despite Abe’s hopes for a summit with Xi, Friday’s activities risk further escalating tensions with China, already high thanks partly to a territorial dispute over a group of remote islands in the East China Sea, which Japan claims as the Senkaku islands and China as the Diaoyutai.
Analysts say that Abe appears to be laying the groundwork for a meeting with Xi at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which China is hosting in Beijing in November. They have not held a bilateral meeting since they both assumed office at the end of 2012.
Japanese government officials privately say that the APEC meeting would be the easiest place for the pair to meet because Xi, as host, will meet with all of the visiting leaders. That means, said one official on the condition of anonymity, that the stakes would be lower and the setting less orchestrated.
Relations between Japan and South Korea are also at a particularly low point. South Korea was incensed by Abe’s visit to Yasukuni in December and views skeptically his decision to reinterpret Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution to allow for “collective self-defense.” But the thorniest dispute between the two countries centers on the “comfort women” — the women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Friday that Japan should try to right past wrongs and take “forward-looking steps on sex slaves.”
“Relations between South Korea and Japan can steadily develop only when these issues are correctly resolved,” Park said in a speech marking “Liberation Day,” the holiday marking the end of Japan’s 35-year colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.