Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Thursday, the 74th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, but refrained from visiting it on the day for the seventh year in a row.
Abe made the monetary offering out of his own pocket, his aide Tomomi Inada told reporters.
The Shinto shrine is seen by critics, especially in China and South Korea, where painful memories of Japan's actions before and during the war persist, as a symbol of Tokyo's past militarism.
For the third straight year, no Cabinet ministers visited on Aug. 15, although a cross-party group of about 50 lawmakers, as well as some other conservative parliamentarians, went to the shrine that honors convicted war criminals such as wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, along with over 2.4 million war dead.
This year's anniversary came as Sino-Japanese ties have been markedly improving despite disagreements over issues related to wartime history and territory, with a visit to Japan next spring by Chinese President Xi Jinping as a state guest being planned.
In Beijing, China refrained from directly criticizing Abe for having sent a ritual donation to the shrine, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying urging Japan to make efforts "to win the trust of Asian neighbors."
Japan's relations with South Korea, however, have sunk to a new low due to a row over wartime history with no apparent signs of mending fences.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement, "We express deep concern" about Abe's action and Japanese lawmakers' visit to Yasukuni.
As Abe skipped his visit to the shrine, Inada, a former defense minister, made the ritual donation on his behalf. The offering was made under the name of Shinzo Abe without his title of prime minister or president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, she said.
"I was told that (Abe) wanted to express appreciation and respect for those who devoted their lives to the country because we enjoy peace and prosperity," Inada said.
From the LDP, Koichi Hagiuda, executive acting secretary general, and Shinjiro Koizumi, a son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, were among the lawmakers who went to Yasukuni.
Past visits to the shrine by Japanese prime ministers and lawmakers have often been criticized. Abe's previous visit in December 2013 provoked the ire of China and South Korea and disappointed its ally the United States.
Tokyo and Seoul are no closer to resolving their differences over wartime history, having been locked in a dispute triggered by South Korean court rulings last year that ordered Japanese firms to compensate for wartime forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Tokyo maintains that the issue of compensation was settled by a 1965 bilateral agreement that normalized ties with Seoul.
Tensions between the two countries have also spiked over Japan's recent tightening of export controls on some South Korea-bound exports and its decision to remove Seoul from Tokyo's list of nations with preferential trade status.
Japan has said such steps were taken for security reasons, not in retaliation for South Korea's failure to address the dispute stemming from the compensation orders.
This year, Yasukuni marks the 150th anniversary of its establishment. The shrine had sought last fall to realize a visit by then Emperor Akihito to commemorate its founding but his aides declined, according to officials at the shrine and the Imperial Household Agency who spoke on condition of anonymity.
(Members of a Japanese nonpartisan group, led by its chief Hidehisa Otsuji (2nd from R), visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Aug. 15, 2019.)