As Japan on Friday observed the 69th anniversary of its surrender in World War II, three Cabinet ministers made what they said were private visits to war-related Yasukuni Shrine.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, refrained from making another controversial official visit to the shrine on Friday to avoid blowing his chances of meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping, who he hopes to speak with for the first time on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November in Beijing.

Xi has refused to hold a summit with Abe ever since the conservative prime minister made an official visit to Yasukuni in December 2012. State visits to the Shinto facility, which served as Japan’s spiritual backbone during the war, are viewed by Japan’s former enemies as attempts to glorify its wartime past.

Instead, Abe paid to donate a branch from a sacred Shinto “tamagushi” tree to the shrine via Lower House lawmaker and aide Koichi Hagiuda.

Hagiuda quoted Abe as saying he made the donation to “extend sincere condolences to the people” who fought and died for the state and to “pray for eternal peace.”

The three ministers — internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo and Keiji Furuya, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, and administrative reform minister Tomomi Inada — stressed that they went to the shrine in Tokyo as private citizens, not government officials.

“It’s only natural to extend sincere condolences to people who dedicated their lives to their country. I paid a visit to pray for peace,” Furuya told reporters at the shrine in Chiyoda Ward.

“This is a private act and it won’t cause any concern,” Shindo said.

Their comments again highlighted the divisiveness caused by the shrine, which is worshipped by Japan’s right-leaning politicians but shunned by many foreign leaders.

In Asia, especially in China and South Korea, the shrine is regarded as a symbol of Japan’s militarism from the 1930s and ’40s. But lawmakers like Shindo and Furuya say they go there to pray for the nation’s war dead, not the war criminals also enshrined there.

Aside from Shindo and Furuya, other Diet members who visited Yasukuni Friday morning included Shinjiro Koizumi, a son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who himself visited the shrine several times during his tenure from 2001 to 2006, causing an international row each time.

Jin Matsubara, Diet affairs chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, also paid a visit, as did a group of 83 Diet members led by Upper House politician Hidehisa Otsuji later in the day.

Meanwhile, the government held the annual ceremony for the war dead from the 1930s and ’40s at nearby Nippon Budokan Hall. The ceremony was attended by Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and Abe.

The Imperial family stopped visiting Yasukuni in the 1970s.

“The peace and prosperity we are enjoying now are built upon the precious sacrifice of the war dead. We will never forget it even for a moment,” Abe said in a speech.

“We will humbly face history, etch lessons from it deep in our heart, and open the way to the future for today’s and tomorrow’s generations,” Abe said.

The rites at Nippon Budokan were attended by about 4,600 kin of service members and paramilitary personnel from the Imperial Japanese military.

Most were children and grandchildren, but 19 wives of dead military personnel attended. All were all 80 or older.

Yasukuni enshrines 2.47 million war dead, including Class-A war criminals from World War II, most notably wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.

Another two war crimes suspects died in prison before their verdicts were reached by the Allied tribunal but are also enshrined there.

Top Chinese leaders have refused to meet high-ranking Japanese officials, demanding that Abe pledge not to visit Yasukuni any more and that Japan change its stance over the Senkaku Islands and acknowledge that their sovereignty is in dispute.

Abe visited Yasukuni on Dec. 26, the first anniversary of the launch of his second administration in 2012, severely straining ties with China and South Korea.

Information from Kyodo added. Ayako Mie contributed to this story.

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