TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent religious offerings Tuesday to a Tokyo shrine that honors the country's war dead, including convicted World War II leaders, a likely signal that he won't pray there ahead of trips to an international conference and the United States.
Previous visits and offerings to Yasukuni Shrine have drawn sharp rebukes from China and South Korea. Abe's last visit to Yasukuni, in December 2013, also was criticized by Washington.
The shrine said Abe sent "masakaki" offerings, which came with a wooden plate showing his name and official title. He sent similar offerings for last year's spring and fall festivals at the shrine, which honors war criminals including wartime leader Hideki Tojo among the 2.5 million war dead.
Abe's move comes at a sensitive time as he has expressed hopes of meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping during an Asia-African conference this week in Indonesia, where they will be among more than 100 leaders taking part. The spring festival at the shrine will end before he gets back.
He will also speak to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, where he is expected to touch on Japan's wartime history as part of Japan-U.S. relations since the war. Abe's eight-day U.S. tour, which includes talks with President Barack Obama, is expected to showcase his commitment to stronger ties with Washington, especially in national security.
Anything Abe says this year on history will be closely watched because it marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Abe made the gesture Tuesday as a private citizen based on his personal belief, and paid for the offerings himself. He said Abe's offerings did not represent the government's position as a whole, and brushed off concerns about any diplomatic impact.
Abe said he hoped to meet with Xi in an informal setting on the sidelines of the conference in Indonesia, although nothing has been set.
"If there is an opportunity to hold talks in a natural way, I'm open," Abe told reporters before heading to Indonesia. "I hope to further improve our relations."
As victims of Japan's wartime aggression, neighboring countries see the shrine as a symbol of Japanese militarism. They also see visits by Japanese political leaders as a sign of Japan's lack of remorse over its atrocities.
China and South Korea have repeatedly cautioned against Abe's perceived push for historical revisionism.
In a news program on BS Fuji on Monday, Abe said he does not plan to repeat a landmark apology made in a 1995 statement by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama marking the 50th anniversary of the war's end. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a similar apology in 2005.
"I don't see any reason why I have to write that again," Abe said. "If we merely repeat the same words, we don't need a new statement."
Abe's statement, to be issued on the anniversary of Japan's surrender on Aug. 15, is expected to focus more on Japan's postwar rise and future contribution to the world.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Japan should stick to its previous statements and "squarely face and reflect on the history of aggression, properly handle the issue and gain trust from its Asian neighbors and the global community with concrete actions."
Soured relations following Abe's visit to Yasukuni in 2013 prevented him from holding talks with Xi until last November, when they met during an Asia-Pacific economic conference.
There have been signs of a thaw in Japan-China relations since then, but Abe still has not held talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Relations between Tokyo and Beijing have also been clouded by disputes over a group of Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China.
Japan's health minister, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, and the heads of both houses of parliament also sent similar offerings to the shrine on Tuesday. Dozens of lawmakers are expected to pray at the shrine on Wednesday.
Associated Press news assistant Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.