For the first time since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return to power in 2012, no ministers from his Cabinet visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday, the 72nd anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.

Cabinet ministers’ visits to the shrine, which honors 2.46 million war dead including 12 convicted Class-A war criminals, have been strongly criticized by Japan’s neighbors, namely China and South Korea, causing ties to sour. But sometimes conservative ministers opt to make the visit to pay their respects.

However, due in large part to a recent Cabinet shake-up, the Abe Cabinet now has fewer ministers who have visited the shrine in the past, and even those who normally do visit refrained this year.

“As we face many domestic and overseas issues, I decided not to prioritize my feelings, so I won’t visit (the shrine) to focus on my job,” newly appointed internal affairs minister Seiko Noda, who is a regular visitor to the shrine each Aug. 15, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Her predecessor Sanae Takaichi was also a frequent Yasukuni visitor. Since her appointment in September 2014, Takaichi has made it her policy to visit every summer.

Normally, reporters and other media representatives stake out the site to see which ministers visit the main shrine by 5 p.m. when the gates close. This year, it closed at 7 p.m.

Abe himself avoided visiting the site in person, and instead dispatched a proxy to offer a donation called tamagushi-ryo (monetary offering) on his behalf. Abe apparently wanted to avoid triggering criticism from China and South Korea at a time when he needs their cooperation to deal with the North Korean missile crisis.

Abe’s donation came out of his own pocket, said Masahiko Shibayama, the Liberal Democratic Party’s special adviser to the prime minister, who delivered the offering.

“Under instructions from Mr. Abe, the LDP president, I offered sincere condolences to those who made sacrifices and lost their precious lives in the war, and renewed pledges to pursue eternal peace,” Shibayama told reporters, adding that Abe told him he was “sorry” he could not show up in person.

LDP lawmaker Hidehisa Otsuji, who heads a group of lawmakers supportive of Yasukuni visits, expressed understanding toward Abe’s decision.

“His visiting the shrine in person would develop into a global issue, so I’m sure the victims will understand his decision,” Otsuji told a news conference at the shrine.

On North Korea’s recent string of missile launches and heated rhetoric, Otsuji said he was reminded anew that “war must be avoided at any cost.”

A fellow member of the lawmakers’ group, Yoshikazu Shimada of the LDP, said the number of lawmakers who paid homage to the war dead Tuesday totaled 63, with an additional 100 sending proxies. Of the total, 55 were from the LDP’s ranks, he said.

Tuesday witnessed former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada — known for her reputation as a historical revisionist who defends wars Japan has waged — return to her old routine.

In August last year, Inada — who was then just weeks into her position as defense chief — skipped her annual trip to the site as she was on her way to Djibouti, where the Air and Ground Self-Defense forces have set up a base in their fight against piracy off the Somali coast. She did, however, make a surprise visit in December.

Inada, who was forced to resign last month amid allegations of involvement in the ministry’s institutional data cover-up, made no comment to reporters after she finished her prayers, instead hurrying off to a waiting vehicle.

Other prominent visitors Tuesday included LDP lawmaker Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and ex-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

Staff writer Daisuke Kikuchi contributed to this report

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