TOKYO (AP) — Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent religious offerings Friday to a Tokyo shrine honoring the war dead including convicted wartime leaders, as dozens of lawmakers prayed at the site in a ceremony that drew a rebuke from China.
The Yasukuni Shrine honors war criminals, including wartime leader Hideki Tojo, among the 2.5 million war dead. Many Asian victims of Japan's wartime atrocities, especially China and the Koreas, see the shrine as a symbol of militarism.
Abe last visited Yasukuni in December, triggering anger from China and South Korea.
On Friday, Abe sent a set of Shinto-style "masakaki" ornaments on the occasion marking the shrine's Oct. 17-20 autumn festival, one of three major events when Japan's conservatives typically pray there.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Abe made the gesture as a private citizen based on his personal belief.
A group of 110 lawmakers and 80 aides prayed at the shrine for the war dead. None of the Cabinet members has showed up so far Friday, though Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi told reporters Thursday that she would go. Yauhisa Shiozaki, minister of health, labor and welfare, offered religious ornaments similar to Abe's.
Hours later, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing is "strongly opposed" to such practices.
"The China-Japan relations can only develop when Japan truly faces and introspects its history of aggression and has a clear break away from militarism," Hong sad.
Abe's move signaled he chose to stay away from visiting the shrine. He is currently in Italy for the Asia-Europe Meeting and was scheduled to return home Saturday.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. is encouraging Japan "to continue to work with its neighbors to resolve the concerns over history in an amicable way through dialogue."
Japanese top officials have expressed desire for a first-ever meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping during an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing in November. Abe's low-key approach of sending the offerings rather than visiting the shrine is seen as reflecting the hopes for meeting Xi next month.
Relations between the two Asian powers have also been compounded by territorial disputes over a group of Japan-controlled islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China.
Associated Press writers Kaori Hitomi in Tokyo, Didi Tang in Beijing and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.