Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to controversial Yasukuni Shrine as its spring festival began Tuesday under the nationwide state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak.
The masakaki tree offering to mark the start of the two-day festival was made under the prime minister’s name.
It comes as Abe is asking people in Japan to refrain from unnecessary outings to curb COVID-19 infections. Last week he expanded the state of emergency to all 47 prefectures after his original declaration on April 7 targeted the nation’s biggest urban areas.
Yasukuni Shrine, seen by neighboring countries as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, honors convicted war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, along with more than 2.4 million war dead.
Visits to Yasukuni by prime ministers and lawmakers, including Abe, draw sharp criticism from China and South Korea, where memories of Japan’s militarism run deep. Abe has not visited the shrine since 2013.
A cross-party group of conservative lawmakers has decided not to go to the shrine during this festival, the first time since its formation in 1981. It is customary for the group to visit during the shrine’s spring and autumn festivals as well as on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.
Japan’s relations with China have been improving markedly despite long-running disputes over historical issues and the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
A state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, originally slated for this spring, would have highlighted a further thaw in relations, but the trip was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In stark contrast, Japan-South Korea ties remain chilly after South Korean court rulings in 2018 ordered Japanese firms to pay damages to South Koreans for forced labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
The dispute has spilled over to trade, and a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact was pushed to the brink of collapse last year.