Taiwan vice president makes rare Japan visit to pay respects to Abe

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TOKYO/TAIPEI (Reuters) -Vice President William Lai became Taiwan's most senior official to visit Japan in five decades as he made a private trip to Tokyo to pay his respects on Monday following the recent killing of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by a gunman.

A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said ministry officials were aware that Lai was in Japan on a private visit to pay his respects after Abe was killed on Friday.

The official declined to give further details, including how long Lai would be in Japan.

"We know this person is probably still in Japan but on a private visit to pay respects as Abe's friend."

Taiwan's Presidential Office said it had no comment, but noted Lai was "a close friend for many years" of Abe and his family.

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said it would not comment on Lai's "personal schedule". It did not elaborate.

Taiwan's official Central News Agency said Lai was the most senior official to visit Japan since Tokyo broke official ties with Taipei in 1972 and forged relations with Beijing.

It cited a senior lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party as saying Lai visited Abe's residence in Tokyo to offer condolences and would attend his funeral on Tuesday.

Like most nations, Japan has no formal diplomatic ties with the Chinese-claimed island, but some senior Japanese officials have become increasingly outspoken about their support for Taiwan in recent years.

China says the democratic island does not have the right to state-to-state relations and has stepped up efforts to isolate it diplomatically.

Lai was seen earlier on Monday visiting Abe's residence with Taiwan's de facto ambassador to Japan, Frank Hsieh, according to Japanese media reports.

Earlier on Monday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen offered her condolences during a visit to Japan's de facto embassy in Taipei, saying she would continue Abe's legacy of closer Taiwan-Japan relationships and deepen ties between the two sides.

She had ordered that Taiwan's flags be flown at half-staff through Monday to honour Abe, who was widely considered in Taiwan as being key in contributing towards warming Taipei-Tokyo ties in recent years.

(Reporting By Elaine Lies and Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Bernadette Baum)