TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday defended his visit to a controversial war shrine, but admitted there was no immediate prospect of summits with his South Korean and Chinese counterparts.
In his annual new year press conference, the conservative leader said he wished to directly explain to China's President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun Hye why he visited Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japanese war dead including war criminals.
Late last month, Mr Abe sparked harsh criticism from the neighbouring countries for his visit to the shrine, a place seen as a symbol of Japan's war-time aggression in Asia, particularly by China and the two Koreas.
"I believe having dialogue with China and South Korea is extremely important for the peace and stability of the region," Mr Abe said.
"There is no prospect for summit talks at this point. But because we have issues and problems, I believe it becomes more important that the leaders open our hearts and talk without preconditions," he said.
Mr Abe came to power just over a year ago and has not held direct talks with either leader.
Japan has strained relations with both countries, largely because of persisting animosity over the violence perpetrated by its soldiers before and during World War II.
Mr Abe's visit to Yasukuni, a divisive move even in Japan, prompted concern from the United States, which said it was "disappointed" by a visit that "will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbours".
"Regarding my visit to Yasukuni, as I have outlined... I would like to explain my true intention with sincerity and directly," Mr Abe said, repeating that his "door for dialogue" remained open.
In contrast to the absence of contact in North-east Asia, Mr Abe's diplomatic schedule thus far has been heavy on the fast-growing countries of South-east Asia.
In his speech, Mr Abe also stressed his commitment to boost Japan's once-floundering economy, including supporting much-needed wage-hikes that economists say are vital if his efforts to spark real inflation are to take root.