Japanese minister visits controversial war shrine

A cabinet minister was among scores of Japanese parliamentarians who paid tribute at a controversial war shrine in Tokyo Friday, in a move likely to anger China and South Korea.

Yoshitaka Shindo, minister for internal affairs and communications, insisted he was paying homage at Yasukuni Shrine as an individual, and played down the potential for diplomatic fallout.

"I offered prayers in a private capacity," Shindo, who wore a morning suit, told reporters after making his offering of a branch from a sacred tree.

"I mourned people who lost their lives in wars and prayed for peace," said Shindo, whose grandfather, the commandant of a garrison on Iwojima, died in the infamous battle for the island.

Iwojima was a key staging post for the US military in its assault on Japan in the closing stages of World War II.

Asked if his visit to the shrine would affect Tokyo's ties with other Asian countries, he said: "It's not something that should provoke comments from anyone."

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

The visits were part of the autumn festival at Yasukuni, which runs until Sunday. Thousands of veterans from WWII or their bereaved families are expected to pay homage, while tourists, both domestic and foreign, will also visit.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday donated a symbolic gift to the shrine, in what was taken as a sign that he would not be visiting.

Yasukuni Shrine is the believed repository of the souls of about 2.5 million war dead.

It is controversial because of the inclusion of 14 of the men held responsible for Japan's often-brutal behaviour as it invaded a swathe of Asia in the 1930s and 1940s.

In addition, the museum that is attached to the shrine peddles a largely unapologetic view of WWII that is not widely accepted, either at home or abroad.

China and South Korea, whose peoples suffered under Japan's militarist rule, say Yasukuni is a symbol of Tokyo's present-day unwillingness to come to terms with its past misdeeds.

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

Nationalists, among them a significant number of parliamentarians, visit the shrine in spring and autumn, as well as on August 15, the anniversary of Japan's WWII surrender.

On Friday, about 160 members of parliament were at Yasukuni, accounting for more than 20 percent of the nation's lawmakers. A record 166 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, although he visited the shrine last year when he was in opposition.

"This is an extremely complex issue, and a visit by a minister will make it more complicated," said Yasuko Kono, political professor at Hosei University in Tokyo.

"This is not only a Japanese problem but also a problem in China and South Korea where their governments have difficulty controlling growing nationalism," Kono said.

Tokyo's historical disputes with Beijing and Seoul are further complicated by territorial rows.

Japan and China are at loggerheads over islands in the East China Sea, whose seabed may contain resources, while Seoul and Tokyo disagree over the ownership of a sparsely populated pair of islets in the sea between the two countries.

Abe has had no formal meeting with the leader of either country since coming to power.