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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday there is no problem for his Cabinet members to visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, even if there is criticism from China or South Korea.
"My ministers will not yield to any kind of intimidation," Abe said during a session of parliament. "It's a matter of course to secure the freedom to express one's respect and worship to precious souls of the war dead."
Abe made the remarks at a time when China and South Korea, which see Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, have sternly protested against the visits to the Tokyo shrine by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and two other Cabinet members last weekend, as well as Tuesday's mass homage there by 168 Japanese lawmakers.
Yasukuni honors convicted Class-A war criminals from World War II along with Japan's other war dead. Repeated visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders have angered China and South Korea, both of which suffered under the Japanese military during the war.
During the session of the upper house's budget panel, Abe said one of his important jobs is "to protect the pride (of the Japanese people) built on history and tradition and to protect national interests."
The prime minister, who has been enjoying high public approval ratings since his inauguration in December, said that "it is wrong to think that diplomatic relations will go well" if his government stops making efforts to pay more respect to Japan's tradition.
Aso, who doubles as finance minister, also justified his visit, telling the committee, "No country bans the government from paying respect to those who sacrificed their precious lives for their country. It is a natural duty as a citizen."
The visits by Aso, Keiji Furuya, state minister in charge of dealing with North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals, and Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo were made when Japan's ties with China and South Korea were already strained over territorial issues.
Concerns are growing even in Japan among some opposition lawmakers, business leaders and citizens that the shrine visits by the three ministers will further delay mending relations with the two neighboring countries.
But Abe apparently could not care less about such worries. He said "it is necessary to examine" when China and South Korea "suddenly" started protesting against visits to Yasukuni.
Abe pointed out that South Korea's criticism came to the fore during President Roh Moo Hyun's five-year administration through 2008.
Abe, who did not visit the shrine this time, also said that China did not make any protest when Japanese Class-A war criminals were enshrined there in 1978.
Timed with its spring festival, instead of visiting the shrine, Abe made an offering of a "masakaki" tree traditionally used in rituals celebrated by Japan's Shinto religion, with his name written below his title of prime minister.