Japan's prime minister visited a Shinto shrine at the weekend, but stayed away controversial war shrine in what domestic media said was an effort to please conservative supporters without raising hackles abroad.
Shinzo Abe has made conscious efforts to repair ties with Asian neighbour China, relations largely soured by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi's persistent visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japanese World War II leaders convicted as major war criminals alongside legitimate war dead.
Critics see Yasukuni as a symbol of the militarism behind Japan's invasion and occupation of vast swathes of Asia in the early 20th century.
Abe visited both Beijing and Seoul within weeks of taking office in September, and visits by Chinese and South Korean leaders to Japan are planned for this year.
However, his government's support has suffered in recent weeks with Abe under fire from conservative backers for apparently toning down his stance on controversial issues related to Japan's history.
"The prime minister wants to clearly show his conservative stance," Kyodo quoted an Abe aide as saying of the visit to the Meiji Shrine, which attracts millions of people on traditional New Year pilgrimages in the first few days of January.
Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, told NHK television Sunday Abe's penchant for compromise was probably one reason for his falling support rates.
Abe also had yet to create a real relationship of trust with China, Ozawa said.
"From now on, Abe must create and implement his own diplomatic strategy based on his own ideas," the opposition leader said. "But at present, the boldness Mr Abe displayed before becoming prime minister has disappeared and he just seems to be compromising while worrying about other people's opinions."
(China Daily via agencies January 8, 2007)