TOKYO // In the steamy heat of mid-August, the tranquil, cherry tree-shaded grounds of Yasukuni Shrine in the heart of Tokyo seem an unlikely hotbed of provocation.
But visits by senior Japanese government officials to the shrine, whose grounds also house a war museum glorifying Japan's wartime past, routinely anger neighbouring China and South Korea, highlighting lingering resentments 68 years after the end of World War II, an anniversary that Japan marked Thursday.
Prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose hawkish views have raised concerns in the region, did not visit the shrine on the anniversary, but had an aide present an ornamental offering bought with his own money. He also laid flowers at a national cemetery dedicated to more than 352,000 unidentified war victims.
Two of his cabinet members, decked out in morning suits, did pay their respects at the shrine Thursday, prompting China to summon the Japanese ambassador in Beijing to register a protest.
The prime minister - who has previously expressed unease over Japan's apologies for wartime aggression - also broke with two decades of tradition yesterday by omitting any expression of remorse for Tokyo's past aggression in Asia on the anniversary of its World War II surrender. Mr Abe's speech avoided words such as "profound remorse" and "sincere mourning" used by his predecessors to acknowledge the suffering caused by the Imperial Japanese Army as it stormed across East Asia - an omission sure to anger China and South Korea.
A shrine of Japan's indigenous Shinto religion, Yasukuni evokes bitter memories across Asia of Japan's colonial and wartime aggression. It honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including Class A war criminals such as Hideki Tojo, a prime minister during the war, who was executed in 1948.
Japan has repeatedly apologized for its wartime actions, but the shrine remains a flashpoint nearly seven decades after Emperor Hirohito issued his proclamation surrendering to Allied forces on Aug. 15, 1945.
North and South Korea marked the surrender anniversary Thursday with ceremonies of their own celebrating their independence from Japan's 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula. South Korean president Park Geun-hye urged Japanese leaders to "show brave leadership in healing wounds of the past."
Mr Abe's support for revising Japan's pacifist constitution and raising the profile of its military are compounding the unease at a time of rising tensions over a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Japan and China.
Hackles rose also at the unveiling earlier this month of Japan's biggest warship since the end of the war. The Izumo, a flat-top destroyer, shares the same name as a warship in the Imperial Navy destroyed in an American attack in 1945.
"We call upon the Japanese side to honor their commitment to admit and reflect upon their history of invasion, act with care on relevant questions, and through concrete actions, win the trust of the people of Asian victim nations and international society," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei as saying.
In Seoul, South Korea, women who had been forced to work in wartime brothels of the Japanese army, and their supporters, rallied outside the Japanese Embassy, demanding apologies and compensation.
A group of four South Korean lawmakers traveled to Japan, planning to visit Yasukuni in protest Thursday. Police kept them away to prevent possible trouble with rightists in the vicinity. They instead held a brief protest a few blocks from the shrine.
Yasukuni was created in 1869 to honor 3,588 loyalists who died the year before, when imperial forces overthrew centuries of feudal rule. Standing sentry is the bronze statue of the founder of Japan's modern army.
Its museum recounts in unapologetic detail Japan's military exploits over the past 150 years, including its occupation of much of Asia in the early 20th century.
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse