Japan has confirmed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a personal message to a ceremony honoring hundreds of World War II-era Japanese war criminals.
The Asahi newspaper reported Wednesday that Prime Minister Abe sent the note to the April ceremony held at Koyasan Okunoin temple in western Japan.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Abe's note was sent in his capacity as head of Japan's ruling party, and not as prime minister.
"In this case, he sent this message as Shinzo Abe and as the head of the Liberal Democratic Party. As such, the government thinks of him in this respect as a private citizen," said Suga.
Asahi reported that in the note, Abe expressed grief for the death of the war criminals, who he said "sacrificed their souls to become the foundation of the country."
Organizers have confirmed the note was read at the ceremony, which was attended by former Japanese military officers.
The names of at least 1,180 convicted and suspected war criminals are inscribed on an empty tomb at the Buddhist temple.
There has been no comment from China or South Korea, who regularly protest moves by Japanese officials to honor Japan's war dead.
Chinese and Koreans were among the primary victims of Japanese imperial aggression during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.
Beijing and Seoul responded angrily in 2013 after Prime Minister Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 "Class A" war criminals.
Abe and other Japanese officials have defended the visits by saying they are not meant to hurt the feelings of the victims of Japanese aggression, but are intended to honor the country's war dead.