TOKYO -- Japan's hawkish new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, observed the anniversary of his nation's defeat in World War II by sending an offering to a controversial Tokyo war shrine instead of visiting it himself, a compromise move meant to try to satisfy his right-wing base without inflaming passions in the region.
Mr. Abe's deliberations on a possible visit to the Yasukuni Shrine -- which he had promised before becoming prime minister in December -- were closely watched as an early test of whether he would revert to the strident nationalism of his first troubled tenure as the country's leader. Critics said the prime minister had been holding back for months to help appeal to a wider audience before parliamentary elections, which his party won in a landslide last month.
The prime minister's balancing act highlighted his struggle since taking office to juggle two conflicting political goals: a deeply felt personal desire to revise what his supporters call an overly negative postwar portrayal of Japan's conduct during the war, and an effort to solidify ties in the region to help the United States offset China's growing strength.
Mr. Abe has largely avoided touching on sensitive historical issues since he took office, with the exception of another offering he made to Yasukuni in April. Mr. Abe's supporters say he is responding at least in part to pressure from American officials, who fear that historical issues may isolate Japan, the United States's largest Asian ally, at a time when the Americans must cope with China and a nuclear North Korea.
Mr. Abe had refused to say clearly for days whether he would go to the Shinto shrine, which honors the nation's war dead including executed war criminals. The offering of an envelope full of cash was signed by Mr. Abe and delivered by an aide, Koichi Hagyuda, who said that Mr. Abe regretted not being able to come, a secretary for Mr. Hagyuda said.
The Japanese government's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, described Mr. Abe's offering as a personal gesture, not an official one. Separately, three low-level cabinet members paid what they called private visits to the shrine wearing formal black suits.
Official visits to Yasukuni have long been flashpoint in regional relations because victims of Japanese wartime aggression, including China and South Korea, view the site as a potent symbol that Japan remains unrepentant for its past.
Mr. Abe's gesture failed to mollify China, which is locked with Tokyo in a bitter standoff over islands that China says Japan claimed in the late 1800s as one of the aspiring imperial power's earliest attempts to impose its will on the region. On Thursday, China summoned the Japanese ambassador in Beijing to "express strong protest and stern condemnation" over the cabinet members' visits, according to Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Mr. Hong called the shrine visits a "brazen challenge to historical justice."
Many Japanese conservatives insist they have the right to visit the shrine to pay respects to their nation's war dead, including the 3.1 million military personnel and civilians who perished in World War II. But the shrine has also become a rallying point for Japanese nationalists who dispute the historical view of Japan as an aggressor that they say was a product of the postwar Tokyo war crimes trials.
A war museum on Yasukuni's premises casts Japan instead as the liberator of Asia from Western imperialism, a portrayal that has drawn protests from Asian neighbors and liberal scholars. Several years ago, the United States Embassy also quietly protested the museum's description of Japan having been lured into attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The shrine's conflicted symbolism also leads many Japanese to stay away. That includes Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, who instead presided over the Japanese government's official ceremony, which was held across the street from Yasukuni at the Budokan martial arts arena. Standing below a large Japanese flag, the emperor and empress observed a minute of silence before a crowd of about 6,000 people, including family members of fallen Japanese sailors and soldiers.
No Japanese emperor has visited Yasukuni since the mid-1970s, when Emperor Hirohito objected to the decision to enshrine the souls of top war criminals, according to documents made public in the mid-2000s.
Mr. Abe, who was at the Budokan ceremony, laid flowers at Japan's grave for its unknown soldiers and pledged to contribute to world peace. However, his speech there failed to express remorse for the suffering that Japan inflicted on other Asian nations during the war, something that previous prime ministers have included in their anniversary speeches for the past two decades.
The visits Thursday by the three Cabinet ministers received intense media attentionin Japan and abroad. Other lawmakers from the conservative governing party, the Liberal Democrats, also visited the shrine.
In a televised speech Thursday in Seoul to observe the end of the war and of Japanese colonial rule, South Korea's president, Park Geun-hye, warned that it would be difficult "to build trust for the future if Japan doesn't have the courage to face history" and consider "the pain of others."
Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo, Choe Sang-hun from Seoul, South Korea, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Bree Feng contributed research from Beijing.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.