TOKYO (AP) -- 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 neighboring China and South Korea, highlighting lingering resentments 68 years after the end of World War II that Japan marked Thursday.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose hawkish views have raised concerns in the region, appeared unlikely to visit the shrine on the anniversary, but had an aide present an ornamental offering bought with his own money.
Two of his Cabinet members, decked out in morning suits, did pay their respects at the shrine Thursday morning, prompting China to summon the Japanese ambassador in Beijing to register a protest.
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 70 years 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 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula. South Korean President Park Geun-hye urged Japanese leaders to "show brave leadership in healing wounds of the past."
Abe joined Emperor Akihito at a ceremony at a Tokyo indoor arena where they bowed deeply before a backdrop of white and yellow chrysanthemums in paying respects for the war dead.
"I pray for world peace and our country's further prosperity," Akihito said.
Abe has said he regrets not visiting Yasukuni on the anniversary during his first, one-year term in 2006-2007. When asked if he would go this year, he told reporters, "Since it would become a political and diplomatic problem, I cannot tell you that."
Past public opinion polls have shown majorities of those asked support visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders, though the shrine is not as popular as other major Shinto sites.
"There are different opinions, but I am here today to honor the war dead because I believe we are here now thanks to those who fought for our country," said Akira Fujisada, a Tokyo resident, who traveled early in the morning from a distant Tokyo suburb to pay his respects with his wife and one-year-old daughter.
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.