TOKYO • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday sent a ritual offering to a controversial Tokyo shrine for war dead, prompting China to urge Japan to "deeply reflect on its invasion history".
Mr Abe's offering comes ahead of a high-level meeting between the two countries to help smooth ties that have long been strained by what Beijing sees as Japanese leaders' reluctance to atone for the country's war-time past. China and South Korea had suffered under Japan's sometimes brutal occupation and colonial rule before Tokyo's defeat in 1945.
Mr 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 II as it honours convicted war criminals among other war dead, comes as Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida prepares to visit Beijing.
Mr 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 has 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 spokesman 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 neighbours and the international community," she told a daily news briefing.
In Seoul, South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Cho June Hyuk also expressed deep concerns about Mr Abe's move. The spokesman urged Tokyo to squarely face up to history and show sincere actions to repent its past atrocities.
Japanese media said Mr Seiichi Eto, a special adviser to Mr Abe, visited the shrine yesterday. Other lawmakers are expected to pay their respects there today.
Mr Abe's offering at Yasukuni, where 14 leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honoured with the 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 furore that would result if he attended the festival.
Japan hosts the Group of Seven (G7) leaders' summit next month, and Mr 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 a key ally, the United States.
Since becoming premier in late 2012, Mr 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 II defeat, but did not visit the shrine.