(Adds Abe offering, quotes, paragraphs 1, 4, 6, 8, 10-11)
By Minami Funakoshi and Antoni Slodkowski
TOKYO, Aug 15 (Reuters) - Japanese cabinet ministers paid their respects at a Tokyo shrine seen as a symbol of past militarism on Friday and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also sent an offering, moves likely to anger Asian neighbours and put at risk attempts to improve regional ties.
The visit by cabinet officials including Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo to the Yasukuni shrine on the 69th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two is likely to prompt more sharp protests from Beijing and Seoul.
The shrine honours 14 Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, as well as Japan's war dead.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent his offering through a representative but had not been expected to visit in person.
Abe paid his respects at the shrine in December, sharply chilling ties with China and South Korea. Recent tentative moves to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping have yet to bear fruit.
Koichi Hagiuda, an Abe aide and lawmaker, presented the ritual offering, which was made in Abe's name as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Abe is walking a fine line between trying not to inflame tensions with Beijing and Seoul and upholding a conservative ideology that takes a less apologetic tone towards Japan's wartime past.
Hagiuda said Abe wanted him to "express his respect and to pay homage to the people who sacrificed their lives for the nation".
Keiji Furuya, whose portfolios include the National Public Safety Commission, also visited the central Tokyo shrine within hours of its giant gates opening, joining men in military uniforms, schoolchildren and elderly women in mourning clothes.
"I think it's natural to pay homage to the people who sacrificed their precious lives for this country," Furuya told reporters at the shrine.
"I am a member of parliament but I am also a Japanese citizen, so while praying for world peace I offered my respects."
Shigeyo Oketa, 80 years old and a maker of traditional geta sandals, said he had been visiting the Yasukuni shrine since his older brother was killed in battle in 1945.
"It's natural for us to come here, we're all human and we should pay respect," he said, cradling a black-and-white photo of his younger self and his mother. "It's none of any other countries' business. Everyone should just be friends." (Writing by Elaine Lies)
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