A group of Japanese parliamentarians visited a controversial war shrine on Tuesday, a move which was likely to invite protests from neighbouring countries.
Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo honours Japanese wartime leaders convicted of war crimes among 2.5 (m) million Japanese killed in fighting during World War II.
The shrine compound has a war museum that glorifies the country’s wartime past, and the site is a focus of nationalist pride among Japanese conservatives and right-wingers.
Visits to the shrine by political leaders are routinely criticised by China and South and North Korea, which bore much of the brunt of Japan’s pre-1945 militarist march through Asia.
The visits are regarded as evidence that Japan’s leaders do not acknowledge their country’s responsibility for its militarist past.
South Korea and China lodged protests after the country’s prime minister made a donation to the shrine and three Cabinet ministers visited over the weekend.
According to a government spokesman, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe donated religious ornaments with “prime minister” written on them to mark Yasukuni Shrine’s spring festival, but did not visit the shrine himself.
The finance minister and two other Cabinet ministers, who prayed at the shrine, were said to have been there in an unofficial capacity.
In Seoul, a Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed “deep concern and regret” over the actions by Abe and the other Cabinet members.
China’s Foreign Ministry said it lodged a diplomatic protest over the “negative moves.”
Hidehisa Otsuji, who leads a group of Japanese parliamentarians campaigning for official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, said that he had “difficulties” understanding the opposition from other countries.
“As a national lawmaker, in any country, it is only natural to offer prayers to the sacred spirits who sacrificed their lives for the country,” Otsuji said.
The visits came amid heightened tension among the Northeast Asian nations.
Japan is at odds with South Korea over an island group in the Sea of Japan that Seoul has controlled since the 1950s, and is increasingly at odds with China over a group of small islands in the East China Sea that both countries claim.
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