TOKYO (AP) — More than 100 Japanese lawmakers paid respects Wednesday at a Tokyo shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including World War II leaders, but Cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not participate in the spring ritual.
Abe sent religious offerings Tuesday rather than visiting Yasukuni Shrine, a move less likely to draw controversy on his current Southeast Asian trip and an upcoming U.S. visit.
Organizers gave an initial count of 106 lawmakers visiting the shrine. They said no cabinet ministers had visited as of Wednesday morning.
Previous visits by Japanese leaders to pray at Yasukuni Shrine have drawn sharp rebukes from China and South Korea. Abe's last visit to Yasukuni, in December 2013, was also criticized by Washington.
But those who worship at the shrine insist they are fulfilling an obligation to the victims of war.
"The spirits of the war dead — they died for their country, with the thought of their country in mind. I believe they are praying for their country to be in peace," Hidehisa Otsuji, who heads a group of lawmakers campaigning for officially sanctioned visits to the shrine, said in downtown Tokyo.
Abe sent "masakaki" offerings, with a wooden plate showing his name and title. He sent similar offerings last spring and fall at the shrine, which honors war criminals including wartime leader Hideki Tojo among the 2.5 million war dead.
Abe's move comes at a sensitive time as he has expressed hopes of meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping during an Asia-African conference this week in Indonesia, which will draw more than 100 leaders. No meeting between the two has been set.
"If there is an opportunity to hold talks in a natural way, I'm open," Abe told reporters before heading to Indonesia. "I hope to further improve our relations."
As victims of Japan's wartime aggression, neighboring countries see the shrine as a symbol of Japanese militarism. They also see visits by Japanese political leaders as a sign of Japan's lack of remorse over its atrocities.
The shrine's spring festival will end just as Abe returns Thursday evening. Though the shrine is open to visits any time of year, politicians customarily visit during the spring and fall festivals or on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan's surrender ending World War II.
Soon after he returns Abe leaves on an eight-day U.S. tour. He will talk with President Barack Obama and speak to a joint meeting of Congress, where he is expected to touch on Japan's wartime history as part of Japan-U.S. relations since the war. The visit is expected to showcase Abe's commitment to stronger ties with Washington, especially in national security.
Anything Abe says this year on history will be closely watched because it marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
China and South Korea have repeatedly cautioned against Abe's perceived push for historical revisionism.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday that Japan should "squarely face and reflect on the history of aggression, properly handle the issue and gain trust from its Asian neighbors and the global community with concrete actions."
Associated Press news assistant Liu Zheng in Beijing, and Koji Ueda and Emily Wang in Tokyo, contributed to this report.