TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a ritual offering of a pine tree to a shrine seen as a symbol of Japan's former militarism on Sunday, a gesture likely to upset Asian victims of Japan's war-time aggression, including China and South Korea.
Abe, an outspoken nationalist, offered the tree to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honored along with other war dead. Abe did not visit the shrine.
Abe, who became prime minister for a second time after his Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) election win in December, is unlikely to visit the shrine as he seeks to rebuild relationships with China and South Korea.
Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated sharply in September after Japan bought islets in the East China Sea claimed by Beijing, sparking anti-Japanese protests across China.
Ties have been shadowed for years by what Beijing says has been Tokyo's refusal to admit to wartime atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in the country between 1931 and 1945. Memories of brutal Japanese occupation also run deep in North and South Korea.
Two Japanese ministers and deputy chief cabinet secretary visited the shrine this weekend, as did Abe as main opposition party leader in October.
"It is natural for a lawmaker to offer condolences for the spirits of those who gave their lives for the country," said Keiji Furuya, minister in charge of the issue of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals, who visited on Sunday, as did Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato.
Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Yoshitaka Shindo visited on Saturday.
(Reporting by Kaori Kaneko)