Prime Minister Shinzo Abe avoided visiting the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on Monday, the 71st anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, instead dispatching a proxy to deliver a ritual offering for the war dead and Class-A war criminals enshrined there.

Abe’s reluctance to visit likely reflects the government’s wish not to damage ties with China and South Korea, which view trips to the Tokyo shrine by top officials as a sign that Japan remains unrepentant for its wartime atrocities.

Abe sent special adviser and Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yasutoshi Nishimura to offer a tamagushiryo (cash offering) out of his own pocket.

Nishimura said Abe did not entrust him with a specific message, but he elaborated on his own thoughts as he paid homage to the war dead.

“I offered my condolences to people who died fighting for their nation and prayed that they will rest in peace,” Nishimura said. “I also assured them of Japan’s renewed vows to avoid war and further move forward on its path as a peaceful country.”

Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda, who is a close aide to Abe, visited the Shinto shrine in the morning.

Internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, a regular visitor to the shrine, stuck to her annual routine.

“I expressed my reverence and gratitude for those who committed themselves to national policies at the time,” Takaichi told reporters after offering her prayers at the shrine just after noon.

She brushed off the perennial assertion from other countries that such visits to the shrine are inappropriate, saying her action should in no way develop into a diplomatic problem.

“Offering condolences to the war dead is the kind of action that should be done in a respectful manner in every nation,” she said.

Olympics minister Tamayo Marukawa also paid homage.

“As the environment surrounding Japan becomes more complicated and tensions escalate, I asked those enshrined there to watch over us as we make the right decisions to preserve our precious peace,” Marukawa said, adding that while she offered her prayers in a private capacity, she used her title of state minister when she signed her name in the guest book.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, a regular visitor to the shrine on Aug. 15, is on a three-day trip to Djibouti for a review of Self-Defense Forces personnel stationed there.

Inada’s overseas trip made it physically impossible for her to visit the shrine, an apparent move by Abe to stave off worsening ties with Japan’s Asian neighbors.

Inada has visited the shrine each anniversary since 2006, the year after she was elected to the Lower House from the ruling LDP.

In a separate visit, a nonpartisan group of lawmakers espousing official visits to Yasukuni offered prayers at the controversial shrine before noon. The group put the preliminary tally of lawmakers who made the visit at 67, compared with 66 last year. Another 101 dispatched proxies.

Of the 67, 59 are from the LDP, four from the main opposition Democratic Party and one from Osaka Ishin no Kai, according to LDP lawmaker Yoshikazu Shimada, a member of the group.

Hidehisa Otsuji, who heads the nonpartisan group, said he respects Abe’s repeated decision to forgo visiting the shrine on the surrender anniversary.

During his first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, Abe stopped short of visiting the shrine, a decision he later said he “regretted very badly.”

Despite that statement, Abe has opted to play it safe during his current term, steering clear of a visit to the shrine on Aug. 15 for four consecutive years after sweeping back into power in December 2012.

This, Otsuji said, suggests that there are “extremely important circumstances” Abe has had to prioritize over his personal ideology, an apparent reference to Japan’s thorny relations with China and South Korea.

“In any case, given those people who lost their lives in their dedication to the nation, I think the prime minister’s decision to prioritize Japan’s national interest will be understood to a certain extent,” Otsuji said.

Among other high-profile figures who prayed at the shrine Monday were former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo, and Shinjiro Koizumi, a son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Newly appointed farm minister Yuji Yamamoto, meanwhile, told a news conference Monday that he had visited the shrine on Aug. 6. Reconstruction minister Masahiro Imamura went there Thursday.

Staff writer Ayako Mie contributed to this report

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