• REUTERS, KYODO

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Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, on Saturday, his first visit since December 2013, after refraining from doing so for most of his term to avoid angering China and South Korea.

"Today, I paid a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and reported to the souls of the war dead that I resigned as prime minister on Sept. 16," he tweeted with a photo of himself escorted by a priest.

Abe's visit comes just days after Yoshihide Suga succeeded him as Japan's leader. The nation's longest-serving leader stepped down, citing health problems.

The shrine is seen by Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Japan's past military aggression because it honors 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal as well as war dead.

Abe had only visited the shrine in person once during his last tenure as prime minister but regularly sent offerings via an aide during the shrine's spring and autumn festivals.

His pilgrimage to the shrine in 2013 sparked outrage in South Korea and China and an expression of "disappointment" from the United States.

Washington and Tokyo have become close security allies in the decades since the war's end but its legacy has left scars in East Asia.

Ties between Tokyo and Seoul have remained strained due to bitter memories of Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of Korea, including a dispute over compensation for Korean wartime laborers. Tokyo says the matter was settled by a 1965 treaty normalizing relations.

The 2013 visit was the first by a prime minister since that of Junichiro Koizumi in 2006. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is unlikely to make such a visit, political analysts said.

Abe signed the guest register as "former prime minister" this time around, according to a source close to the matter.

With this year marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, four Cabinet members, including Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi and education minister Koichi Hagiuda, visited the shrine on Aug. 15., the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II. Koizumi, a son of Junichiro Koizumi, and Hagiuda were retained in the new Cabinet formed by Suga.

Established in 1869 to commemorate those who gave their lives for Japan, Yasukuni in 1978 added wartime prime minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo, and other convicted war criminals to the more than 2.4 million war dead enshrined there.

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