Religious offering dedicated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are seen, center in the background, as people pray at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo during an annual spring festival on Tuesday, April 22, 2015. Abe sent religious offerings Tuesday to the shrine that honors convicted World War II leaders among its war dead. Abe's offerings likely signal that he will not pray at the controversial Yasukuni shrine ahead of trips to Asia and the United States. (AP Photo/Koji Ueda)
FILE - In this March 10, 2015 file photo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Abe has sent religious offerings to a Tokyo shrine that honors convicted World War II leaders among its war dead. But Abe's offerings on Tuesday, April 21, 2015 signal that he will not pray at the controversial Yasukuni shrine ahead of trips to Asia and the United States. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent religious offerings Tuesday to a Tokyo shrine that honors convicted World War II leaders among its war dead, 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 the controversial Yasukuni shrine have drawn sharp rebukes from China and South Korea. Abe's last visit to Yasukuni, in December 2013, also drew criticism from Washington.
The shrine said Abe sent "masakaki" offerings, with a name card showing his name and official title. He sent similar offerings marking 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 the Wednesday-Thursday Asia-African conference in Indonesia, where both will be among more than 100 leaders taking part. The spring festival at the shine will end before he gets back.
He will also speak to a joint meeting of Congress, where he is expected to touch on Japan's wartime history as part of Japan-U.S. relations since.
Anything Abe says this year on history will be closely watched as this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Abe made the gesture 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.
Suga also said he still hoped Abe and Xi could meet in an informal setting on the sidelines of the conference in Indonesia, although nothing has been set.
"Because they will be attending the same conference, it would be meaningful if they can meet in a natural way," Suga told a regular news conference.
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.
Soured relations following Abe's 2013 Yasukuni visit had kept Abe and Xi from holding talks until November, when they met during the Asia-Pacific economic conference.
There have been signs of a thaw in Japan-China relations since, but Abe still has not held bilateral talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Relations between Tokyo and Beijing have also been compounded by territorial 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, also sent offerings to the shrine Tuesday. Dozens of lawmakers are expected to pray at the shrine on Wednesday.
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