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Japan prime minister makes offering to war shrine, but skips visit

TOKYO -- Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a gift to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine Monday, sparking a Chinese charge that he was offering “a slap in the face” to U.S. President Barack Obama days ahead of his visit.

The unapologetically nationalist Abe donated a sacred “masakaki” tree to coincide with the start of a three-day festival, an official said.

The sending of a gift has been seen as a sign that Abe does not intend to go to the shrine — as he did on Dec. 26, sparking fury in Asia and earning him a diplomatic slap on the wrist from the United States, which said it was “disappointed.”

Abe and other nationalists say the shrine is merely a place to remember fallen soldiers. They compare it with Arlington National Cemetery in the United States.

Masaru Ikei, an expert on Japanese diplomacy and professor emeritus at Keio University, said that with Obama due to arrive on Wednesday for a state visit, Abe was always likely to stay away from the shrine.

“The prime minister does not want to worsen ties with China and South Korea before President Obama's visit, but he does want to maintain his creed that he should pray for the war dead,” he told AFP.

Ikei said Washington's public and slightly unexpected rebuke after his last visit meant Abe “will not be able to visit the shrine again for a while.”

Japan's chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga on Monday sought to play down Abe's shrine gift, saying the government does not comment as the offering was “made in his capacity as a private person.”

Asked about possible ramifications on the upcoming meeting between Abe and Obama, Suga said: “It won't affect the summit at all.”

But Beijing offered a markedly different interpretation, lambasting the offering as “yet another provocative move detrimental to regional stability.”

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A sacred branch with red ribbons, offered by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is seen in the main shrine of the controversial Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo on Monday, April 21. (AFP)

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