TOKYO - Japan's nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to visit Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni war shrine on Thursday morning, his office said, in a move certain to roil troubled relations with China and South Korea.
"The office is aware that the prime minister plans to visit the shrine today," said a spokesman at the Prime Minister's Office, adding that it was not a matter that was being officially announced.
The visit will come exactly one year after he took power and is expected to further inflame already-tense relations with China and South Korea, both of which are embroiled in territorial disputes with Japan.
The shrine is the believed repository of the souls of Japan's war dead, including several high-level officials executed for war crimes after World War II, who were enshrined in the 1970s.
South Korea and China see it as a symbol of Tokyo's unrepentance and say it represents a misguided view of its warmongering past.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters the government hoped Abe's visit would not further affect ties.
"I understand that a politician's visit or a minister's visit to the shrine is a matter of his or her personal belief," he told reporters.
"Regardless, I believe we must avoid letting an affair as such develop into a political or diplomatic issue."
The last incumbent Japanese prime minister to visit the shrine was Junichiro Koizumi on August 15, 2006, the anniversary of Japan's defeat in 1945.
His repeated pilgrimages badly soured relations with China, despite the important economic and trade ties that bind the two countries.
Several members of Abe's cabinet have been to the shrine over the last year, and have previously claimed they were doing so in a personal capacity.
The form of confirmation from the prime minister's office suggests Abe may also be trying to make the same distinction.
Abe, did not visit the shrine during his first term as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, although later said that he regretted not having done so.
In October about 160 members of parliament - approximately 20 per cent of the nation's lawmakers - paid tribute at the shrine, including two cabinet ministers, a move that drew a rebuke from China.
During a visit to the United States in May, Abe told Foreign Affairs magazine that the shrine, seen throughout East Asia as a symbol of Japan's militarism, was a tribute to those "who lost their lives in the service of their country" and compared it with the US national cemetery at Arlington.
"I think it's quite natural for a Japanese leader to offer prayer for those who sacrificed their lives for their country, and I think this is no different from what other world leaders do," he said.
Unlike Arlington, Yasukuni's caretakers promote a view of history that is controversial even at home, with the accompanying Yushukan museum staunchly defending much of Japan's wartime record.