• Compiled From Kyodo, Staff Report

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Prime Minister Taro Aso made an offering to Yasukuni Shrine for its spring festival that began Tuesday — a week before his two-day trip to China, a source close to him said.

Aso made the offering “to pay his respects to those who lost their lives fighting for the country and to pray for their souls,” the source said.

The gift of the “masakaki” — a decorative display topped with branches from a “sakaki” tree, an evergreen considered sacred in Shinto — was made under the name “prime minister” and paid for by Aso himself, the source said Tuesday.

It is not known if Aso actually visited Yasukuni to offer the gift. He made a similar gesture at its autumn festival in October, the source said.

One potted masakaki costs ¥50,000. Yasukuni Shrine did not confirm whether Aso made the offering, but if he did the masakaki is likely to be placed near the stairs leading up to the main shrine.

Speaking to reporters in the evening, Aso stressed that no one made an issue out his offering last autumn.

“I basically think that we, the people, should express gratitude and respect toward the people who sacrificed their sacred lives for the country,” Aso said. He refused to say whether he had plans to visit the shrine later this year.

Although Aso is scheduled to visit China next week to meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, he brushed off concerns about the possible diplomatic repercussions of his actions.

“I have mentioned to China many times that we want to keep our focus on the future and that we must also look squarely at history,” Aso said.

But China was quick to react, calling on Japan to deal with the issue in a manner that will help promote the progress made in Sino-Japanese relations.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a regular press briefing that the shrine was “politically sensitive” and a major issue in Sino-Japanese relations.

“We hope the Japanese side will earnestly and scrupulously follow efforts on both sides to overcome political barriers between the two countries,” Jiang said.

South Korea’s government spokesman called the move “extremely regrettable” in light of the “correct assessment of the two countries’ history.”

The last time an incumbent prime minister made an offering to Yasukuni was in April 2007, when then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered a masakaki during the spring festival.

Beijing and Seoul did not directly protest at the time to avoid souring a nascent reconciliation with Japan following the end of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s tenure. Koizumi had angered the two nations by making repeated visits to the contentious shrine.

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