By Minami Funakoshi and Antoni Slodkowski
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese cabinet ministers paid their respects on Friday at a Tokyo shrine to war dead seen as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, a move likely to anger Asian neighbors and put at risk attempts to improve regional ties.
The visit by cabinet officials including Internal affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo to the Yasukuni shrine on the 69th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two is likely to prompt more sharp protests from Beijing and Seoul.
The shrine honors 14 Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, as well as Japan's war dead.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid his respects at the shrine in December, sharply chilling ties with China and South Korea, and recent tentative moves to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping have yet to bear fruit.
Abe is not expected to make another personal visit but may make a ritual offering through a representative of his Liberal Democratic Party later on Friday. He is walking a fine line between trying not to inflame tensions with Beijing and Seoul and upholding a conservative ideology that takes a less apologetic tone towards Japan's wartime past.
Keiji Furuya, whose portfolios include the National Public Safety Commission, also visited the central Tokyo shrine within hours of its giant gates opening, joining men in military uniforms, school children and elderly women in mourning clothes.
"I believe it is the duty of elected representatives such as myself to honor those who gave their lives for the nation and to once more express our prayers for peace," Furuya said.
"I may be a cabinet minister but I am also Japanese and believe it is only natural that, as a Japanese, I pay my respects," he said in a statement.
Shigeyo Oketa, 80 years old and a maker of traditional geta sandals, said he had been visiting the Yasukuni shrine since his older brother died in battle in 1945.
"It's natural for us to come here, we're all human and we should pay respect," he said, cradling a black-and-white photo of his younger self and his mother. "It's none of any other countries' business. Everyone should just be friends."
(Writing by Elaine Lies)