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May 22, 5:19 AM EDT

Japan's first lady visits controversial shrine to war dead


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TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's first lady visited the Yasukuni Shrine honoring the country's war dead, including convicted war criminals, this week in a move that risks outraging neighboring countries that suffered under Japan's World War II aggression.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie does not hold political office, but her visit could be seen as symbolic. Visits by politicians to Yasukuni have in the past angered China and the Koreas.

Photos posted on her Facebook page showed Akie Abe standing in front of Yasukuni on Thursday, and said she was thankful for the peace and prosperity that Japan has today.

"I prayed at Yasukuni," she wrote. "My heart aches when I read the letters and wills (the soldiers) wrote their families. What could their feelings have been as they perished in the battles."

Although dozens of lawmakers pay their respects at Yasukuni for festivals and other special days every year, Abe and most Cabinet ministers have stayed away to avoid criticism.

Abe has sent religious offerings on such days in recent years, but last went to Yasukuni in December 2013.

The lawmakers deny they are condoning war and say they merely want to pay respect to those who sacrificed their lives for their country.

But Yasukuni - a statuesque monument in the middle of Tokyo, with giant cherry trees and flocks of doves - is seen by many as a symbol of Japan's past militarism. Many feel Japan has not yet expressed enough remorse or apology for historical atrocities.

Akie Abe referred in her Facebook post to commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII this year - a milestone the government highlights.

"Seventy years since the war ended, Japan has a big role to play," she wrote, echoing the sentiments of her spouse.

Abe says Japan is ready to play a bigger military role globally, helping the U.S., its most important ally. Abe's policies have been welcomed by Washington. And his ruling party has won recent elections relatively easily.

But some Japanese are worried about getting dragged into international conflicts. Since WWII, Japan has not sent troops to war zones, although it has helped with peacekeeping and other backup operations.

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Akie Abe on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/akieabe?pnreflhc

Follow Yuri Kageyama: http://twitter.com/yurikageyama

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