TOKYO, Japan - In a major departure from routine, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe opted out of visiting a controversial war shrine on Friday to mark the 69th anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender.
The move was seen as a diplomatic gesture to placate neighbours China, Taiwan and South Korea, who feel offended by a visit to the shrine by any Japanese leader.
The Yasukuni Shrine commemorates everyone who died in the war, including over 1,000 war criminals, making it a centre of major international controversy in the region. Fourteen of the listed war-dead are convicted Class A war criminals.
Any high profile visit to the memorial invites serious condemnation from neighbours China, South Korea and Taiwan who regard the shrine and the Japanese government as being unapologetic about the events of WWII. Abe's last trip to the shrine strained Japan's ties with China and South Korea
But this time he chose to stay away, avoiding possible international criticism of angering the neighbours over a symbolic ritual.
Abe's opting out of the symbolic visit, almost a routine of any premier, may have applied a diplomatic balm to the strained ties in the hopes of a first meeting with President Xi Jinping in November, when Beijing will host an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum of regional leaders.
Still more than 80 Japanese politicians, including three cabinet ministers, visited the shrine Friday to mark the anniversary of Japan's surrender.
But Chinese state media appeared little impressed with Abe's gesture.
"Such a show of 'compromise and sincerity,' as some put it, is hardly acceptable, particularly given the recent barrage of remarks and moves by Japan's rightist politicians which lay bare their unrepentant attitude toward World War II," China's official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary.
"It has become a matter of urgency for the current Japanese leaders to truly reflect upon the lessons of history," it said.
Abe was reported to have attended a ceremony at a Tokyo sports arena along with Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and thousands of relatives of Japan's war dead.
Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, announced Tokyo's surrender on the radio on August 15, 1945, after the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"Here, before the souls of those who fell on the battlefields thinking of their homeland and concerned about their families, as well as the souls of those who perished amidst the destruction of the war, and those who lost their lives in remote foreign countries ... I offer my heartfelt prayers for the repose of their souls," Abe said.
South Korea was also unimpressed with Abe avoiding the controversial shrine visit.
South Korea foreign ministry in a statement said that the government "cannot but deplore" Abe's offering and the visits by the cabinet members and lawmakers.
"Japanese politicians should be aware that only when they renounce historical revisionist moves and demonstrate genuine remorse through action, will the relations between [South Korea] and Japan move stably forward as wished by the peoples of the two countries," the statement added.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying also condemned the visit by cabinet ministers. It said the visits "once again demonstrate the Japanese government's wrongful attitude toward historical issues".
"The core of all the issues surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine is whether the Japanese government can adopt a correct understanding of and attitude towards its history of aggression, whether it can respect the feelings of the people in the victimized Asian countries," she said.
"We solemnly urge the Japanese side to ... win back the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community with concrete actions."