Japanese minister visits controversial war shrine

A Japanese cabinet minister visited a controversial war shrine in Tokyo on Friday, in a move likely to cause anger in China and South Korea, which see it as a as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.

Yoshitaka Shindo, minister for internal affairs and communications, paid homage at the Yasukuni shrine but insisted he was there as a private citizen, playing down the potential for diplomatic fallout as a result of a visit from a member of the government.

"I offered prayers in my private capacity. I mourned people who lost their lives in wars and prayed for peace," he told reporters at the shrine.

"I don't think this will develop into a diplomatic issue at all," he said.

An autumn festival is being marked at Yasukuni until Sunday.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has donated a symbolic gift to the shrine in an apparent sign that he will avoid a visit.

Yasukuni, which honours around 2.5 million war dead including 14 leading war criminals, is a flashpoint in relations between Japan and its Asian neighbours, with disagreements about history badly colouring relations.

A group of Japanese parliamentarians make pilgrimages to the shrine during spring and autumn festivals and on August 15, the anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II.

About 160 members of parliament visited Yasukuni on Friday, according to the shrine. A record 166 lawmakers made the trip during April's spring festival.

Abe, who was also prime minister from 2006 to 2007, has stayed away from Yasukuni since he took office in December. He visited the shrine last year, when he was in opposition.

Japanese conservatives say it is natural that they pay homage to people who lost their lives in the service of their country, and say the shrine is no different from Arlington National Cemetery, where the United States honours its war dead.

Moderates dispute this, and are seemingly supported by the US administration, which this month began pushing for a little-known Tokyo cemetery to take its place in an apparent bid to sidestep the corrosive issue.

On a recent visit to Tokyo, Secretary of State John Kerry became the most senior foreign dignitary to visit Chidori ga Fuchi, as US officials briefed that it was Japan's "closest equivalent" to Arlington.