TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday sent a ritual offering to a controversial Tokyo shrine for war dead, prompting China to urge it to "deeply reflect on its invasion history", as the Asian neighbors prepare for a meeting to help smooth ties.
Chinese ties with Japan have long been strained by what Beijing see as Japanese leaders' reluctance to atone for the country's wartime past. China and South Korea suffered under Japan's sometimes brutal occupation and colonial rule before Tokyo's defeat in 1945.
Abe's spring festival offering of a "masakaki" ceremonial tree at the Yasukuni shrine, which some see as a symbol of Japanese militarism in World War Two as it honors convicted war criminals among other war dead, comes as Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida prepares to visit Beijing.
Kishida is likely to meet Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on April 30 in a bid to ease friction over issues such as sovereignty disputes over the South China Sea, Japanese media have said.
"I am aware that the prime minister sent a 'masakaki' offering," chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference. "He did it as a private person and did not use public funds."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the shrine consecrates war criminals.
"We urge Japan to honestly and deeply reflect on its invasion history, demarcate a complete boundary on militarism, and take practical actions to win back the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community," she told a daily news briefing.
Seiichi Eto, a special advisor to Abe, visited the shrine on Thursday, Japanese media said. Other lawmakers are expected to pay their respects there on Friday.
Abe's offering at Yasukuni, where 14 leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honored with war dead, treads a fine line between the demands of conservative allies that he visit the shrine in person and a desire to avoid the diplomatic furor that would result if he attended the festival.
Japan hosts the Group of Seven (G7) leaders summit next month, and Abe is eager to put his best foot forward, particularly ahead of an election in July.
His last visit to Yasukuni, in December 2013, angered China and South Korea and provoked rare criticism from key ally the United States.
Since becoming premier in late 2012, Abe has sent ritual offerings to the annual spring and autumn festivals. He sent a cash offering last August, at the time of the 70th anniversary of Japan's World War Two defeat, but did not visit.
(Reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Additional reporting by Jessica Macy Yu in Beijing; Editing by Elaine Lies, Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)