TOKYO -- For a third time this year, Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, refused supporters' calls to visit a controversial Tokyo war shrine on Thursday, sending a ceremonial offering instead in what was apparently an effort to avoid angering Asian neighbors, including China.
Since taking office in December, the hawkish Mr. Abe has been closely watched to see if he makes potentially provocative displays of Japanese nationalism that could isolate his nation and undermine his efforts to restore Japan's stature in a region increasingly dominated by China. Before becoming prime minister, Mr. Abe had vowed that if he won the office, he would not stop visiting the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals from World War II.
However, as national leader, Mr. Abe has carefully avoided saying or doing anything that would inflame regional passions or allow China to cast him as a dangerous revisionist for what analysts call his deeply held belief that Japan was not the aggressor in World War II. His caution may also be a response to pressure from the United States, which has warned Japan, its largest Asian ally, not to escalate an already tense standoff with China over control of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni shrine can stir strong emotions both here and elsewhere in Asia by touching on sensitive issues of wartime history. Many Japanese conservatives say the visits should not be politicized because they are simply meant to honor the nation's war dead, including the 3.1 million military personnel and civilians who perished in World War II.
However, the shrine, part of Japan's native Shinto religion, is also a rallying point for ultrarightists, in part because of its museum, which portrays Japan as a well-intentioned liberator of Asia from Western colonizers that was unjustly branded as a perpetrator by the postwar Tokyo war crimes trials. That in turn has led many in China and South Korea to view the shrine as a symbol of what they see as Japan's lack of contrition for its 20th-century imperial conquest of much of Asia.
The start of an annual autumn festival on Thursday was the third time that Mr. Abe had faced calls from his political base on the right wing of his governing Liberal Democratic Party to visit the shrine, after a spring festival in April and the 68th anniversary of the war's end on Aug. 15. As he did on both earlier occasions, Mr. Abe instead sent a traditional offering signed in the name of the prime minister but paid out of his own pocket, in an apparent effort to appease his supporters without making too official a gesture or actually visiting.
The offering, called masakaki, is usually a decorated branch or a potted sapling of the sakaki tree, a type of evergreen that is considered sacred in Shinto.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned Mr. Abe's actions on Thursday. A ministry spokesman, Hua Chunying, urged Japan to "honestly reflect on its history of aggression." He also said Japan's leaders should "respect the feeling of Chinese people and other Asian victims."
After the previous two offerings by Mr. Abe, the Chinese government also criticized his actions, though with less vehemence than might have been expected if he had made a visit to the shrine.
A top Japanese government spokesman, Katsunobu Kato, the deputy chief cabinet secretary, told reporters Thursday it was "natural" to pay respects to those who died for their country, but he declined to comment on the offering.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 17, 2013 2:01 PM