Veterans, relatives of war dead and lawmakers crowded a Tokyo war shrine yesterday as Japan marked the 62nd anniversary of its World War II surrender. But with political sensitivities higher than ever, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and all but one of his Cabinet stayed away.
Minister Sanae Takaichi -- whose portfolio includes affairs related to Okinawa, which suffered heavy casualties during the war -- visited Yasukuni shrine yesterday to pay respects to the war dead honored there. Separately, 46 members of parliament offered their prayers at the shrine, down from 62 last year.
Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, made repeated trips to the shrine -- including one on the surrender anniversary last year -- and incensed China and South Korea, triggering refusals to hold summits with him. Koizumi paid a visit to Yasukuni early yesterday.
Abe refused to discuss his decision to skip a visit, telling reporters he did not wish to discuss future plans for a visit "as long as the issue remains a diplomatic problem."
Earlier, at a war ceremony near Yasukuni also attended by Emperor Akihito, Abe expressed his contrition for the suffering Japan caused during its military conquests of Asia.
"Japan caused great damage and pain to people in many countries, especially in Asia," he said. "I express sympathy to these victims on behalf of the people of Japan."
After bowing deeply before a floral memorial to Japan's 3 million war dead, Akihito vowed that Japan would never repeat the tragedy.
"I mourn those who perished in the war, and pray for world peace and for the future of Japan," he said.
Yasukuni shrine is vilified by critics for its role in shaping Japan's war ideology in the 1930s and 1940s and promoting Tokyo's imperialist expansion in Asia.
The shrine also deifies war criminals executed after World War II, such as wartime leader Hideki Tojo, and hosts a museum that depicts Japan's conquests as a crusade against Western colonialism.
Abe, who came to power last September on a strongly nationalist platform, has argued it is natural for a head of state to pay homage to Japan's fallen soldiers. He regularly prayed at Yasukuni before he became prime minister, but has not gone since.
Still, the leader has pushed a nationalist agenda since he took office. Under Abe, Japan has passed legislation aimed at amending the country's pacifist Constitution, and has upgraded the Defense Agency to a full ministry -- part of Abe's efforts to give the military a larger global role. Abe also introduced laws requiring schools to teach patriotism.
Abe coupled those moves with overtures to China and South Korea, however, making fence-mending visits to the two countries last October. Relations have improved since.
But in recent months, Abe's nationalist drive has stalled as his political base has foundered. The leader suffered a crushing defeat in last month's parliamentary elections following a series of gaffes and scandals involving key ministers, as well as a huge pensions scandal.
Japan's right wing was enraged at Abe's absence from Yasukuni. About 10 trucks blaring nationalist slogans converged in front of the prime minister's official residence yesterday afternoon, calling Abe "a traitor to the Japanese people" for failing to properly respect the war dead.