Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sent a ritual offering Thursday to Yasukuni, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo that has long been a source of diplomatic friction with China and South Korea, both of which have criticized the routine practice as honoring a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
Kishida, viewed as a liberal-leaning member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, will likely refrain from paying a visit during the shrine's two-day spring festival from Thursday, a source familiar with the matter said. Likewise, none of his Cabinet ministers visited the shrine Thursday.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the shrine, which honors convicted war criminals along with millions of war dead. So did Sanae Takaichi, the LDP policy chief known for sharing his hawkish views.
Abe's visit to the shrine as prime minister in 2013 sparked criticism from China and South Korea as well as the United States, Japan's key ally. He did not visit the shrine again prior to stepping down in 2020.
Kishida's decision to make the "masakaki" offering without visiting the controversial shrine apparently reflects his desire to avoid worsening ties with Japan's two neighbors while taking heed of the LDP's conservative support base.
Still, South Korea's Foreign Ministry expressed "deep disappointment and regret" over the ritual offering and visits by Japanese political leaders.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin urged Japanese politicians to reflect on the country's "wrong attitude toward its own history of aggression" and "take concrete actions to win the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community."
Japan invaded a huge swath of China by the end of World War II, while it ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, Tokyo's top spokesman, said Kishida made the ritual offering "in a private capacity."
"It's up to the prime minister whether to visit Yasukuni shrine or not," Matsuno told a press briefing.
Kishida also sent a similar offering for the shrine's autumn festival shortly after becoming prime minister last October.
Wartime history has overshadowed Japan's bilateral relations with its neighbors, where memories of Japan's militarism before and during the war run deep.
Kishida has expressed hope to improve ties with South Korea under incoming President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has called for a "future-oriented" approach.
"I think Japan should face the past history and show humble reflection and attitude," South Korea's incoming Foreign Minister Park Jin told reporters Thursday, calling Yasukuni shrine a place that "glorifies" Japan's past aggression.
Under current South Korean President Moon Jae In, relations between Tokyo and Seoul have deteriorated to their lowest point in decades over a host of issues stemming from Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, along with other issues including a territorial dispute.
Yoon is sending a delegation to Japan from Sunday for talks with lawmakers, diplomats and business leaders ahead of his inauguration in May.
Japan and China, meanwhile, are marking the 50th anniversary this year of the normalization of bilateral ties.
However, Sino-Japanese relations have been frayed over wartime history and the sovereignty of the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Beijing claims the uninhabited islets, which it calls Diaoyu.
In 1978, Yasukuni shrine added wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo and 13 other Class-A war criminals to those elevated to the status of gods, stirring controversy in Japan and abroad.
A cross-party group of lawmakers is scheduled to visit the shrine on Friday.