A Japanese veteran, left, and his follower clad in outdated military costumes pose for worshippers taking their photos at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stayed away Monday from a Tokyo shrine that honors convicted war criminals among the nation’s war dead, a bid to avoid controversy with neighboring countries on the 71st anniversary of the end of World War II.
Abe instead sent a gift of money and religious ornaments to Yasukuni Shrine. His visit to the shrine in December 2013 drew sharp rebukes from China and South Korea, which see Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan’s wartime militarism and consider the visits an attempt to whitewash the country’s wartime aggression.
Abe’s government is reportedly trying to arrange a meeting between him and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a G-20 summit in China next month.
At an official memorial ceremony later Monday, Abe reiterated his pledge not to let the tragedy of war be repeated, but neither mentioned Japan’s wartime actions in Asia nor apologized to its victims.
He also did not do so in his three previous speeches at the annual event, though he did touch on some of Japan’s wartime actions last year during a speech in Washington and in a separate statement for the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.
Emperor Akihito reiterated his “feelings of deep remorse,” a phrase he used last year for the first time, capturing media attention because of the contrast between his words and Abe’s.
Akihito, 82, spoke after observing a moment of silence in his first public appearance outside the palace since he indicated his wish to abdicate in a video message last week.
Abe also visited the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery for unidentified soldiers on his way to the memorial ceremony at the nearby Budokan hall.
In a sign of lingering bitter feelings in Asia over Japan’s wartime actions, a group of South Korean lawmakers picked the day to land on small disputed islands in the Sea of Japan to celebrate their country’s liberation from Japanese colonization. The islands are controlled by South Korea but also claimed by Tokyo.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated Japan’s claim to the islands and said the lawmakers’ action was “unacceptable and extremely regrettable.” He said Tokyo had protested to Seoul.
In Nanjing, China, Chinese and South Korea representatives gathered at a memorial hall for victims of Japan’s notorious 1937 Nanking Massacre to commemorate victory in what China calls the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.
There was mixed reaction in South Korea, where President Park Geun-hye focused on future relations with Japan, while the Foreign Ministry expressed “deep concerns and regret” over visits to Yasukuni by others in Abe’s government.
At least four Cabinet ministers have visited Yasukuni since early August, two of them on Monday.
Abe’s special aide Yasutoshi Nishimura, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, told reporters that he offered a donation from Abe to the shrine along with the religious ornaments and prayed on his behalf.
Hidehisa Otsuji, head of a group of lawmakers from various parties who routinely visit Yasukuni, told reporters that Abe’s absence would be understood by the war dead “if it’s a judgment based on national interest.”
Separately, a group of conservative members of parliament chaired by Tomomi Inada, a recently appointed defense minister known for downplaying Japan’s wartime atrocities, also visited the shrine.
Inada is a regular at Yasukuni during ceremonial occasions but is currently out of the country.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Chris Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.
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