Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chose not to visit Yasukuni Shrine last month during its spring festival but did make a 50,000 yen private offering, a Yasukuni spokeswoman said Tuesday.

By taking this step instead of going to the shrine, Abe apparently hoped to avoid harsh criticism from Asia and appeared to be acknowledging warming relations with China, as seen in Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Japan from April 11 to 13.

“I want to keep on showing respect for those who fought for the country and died, and praying for their souls,” Abe said in the evening, confirming his offering. He declined to comment on the details.

Asked if he will make another visit to the shrine, he said: “I won’t make any comments on whether or not I will visit Yasukuni and whether I paid for the offering or not because making any comments regarding Yasukuni would hurt (Japan’s) diplomatic and political relations” with China and South Korea.

Countries that suffered from Japan’s wartime brutality have repeatedly demanded that Japanese leaders not visit Yasukuni, which enshrines war criminals along with the war dead.

Abe donated 50,000 yen to dedicate a “sakaki” tree, or cleyera japonica, to the shrine for the annual spring festival held April 21 to 23. The flowering evergreen is sacred to Shinto.

The last prime minister to dedicate a sakaki to the shrine was Yasuhiro Nakasone, who did so 22 years ago, on Aug. 15, 1985.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said Abe made the offering out of his own pocket and broke no rules regarding the separation of religion and state.

The government’s top spokesman ended his comments on the matter with the statement: “I guess it is not appropriate for the government to make any comments on the prime minister’s activity as a private person.”

Hidenao Nakagawa, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, defended Abe’s action, calling it “private.”

According to Yasukuni Shrine, Abe’s full name and his title of prime minister were imprinted on the wooden plaque for the 2-meter tree.

Together with the autumn festival, the spring festival is among the shrine’s most important events.

Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, visited the shrine every year he was in office, causing severe damage to diplomatic relations with China and South Korea.

To mend ties, Abe visited China and South Korea in October, within a month of his taking office. In response, Wen visited Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto in April.

Abe has repeatedly declined comment on whether he has visited or will visit Yasukuni. However, last year he secretly visited the shrine as chief Cabinet secretary on April 15, days before the spring festival.

Abe’s offering met with harsh criticism from opposition parties, which called it a disingenuous gesture.

“He always sends two messages,” said Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party. Fukushima said Abe attempted to appease Asian nations by not visiting Yasukuni but at the same time he was signaling his support for the hawkish right via the offering.

“It is sneaky and will instead invite distrust of the people at home and abroad,” she told reporters.

Families look at issue

Kyodo News

The Japan War-Bereaved Association held its first meeting Tuesday to study a proposal to separate out Class-A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine.

Association President Makoto Koga, a senior lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told the group, “We cannot merely continue to leave the situation as it is when there is a range of public opinion” about separation.

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