Abe says his ministers can visit Yasukuni Shrine

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe again declined to comment Tuesday on whether he will visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on a World War II anniversary next week, but added he would not prevent his ministers doing so.

"I will not respond (to the question about) whether I will visit" the shrine on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan's surrender in the war, Abe told a press conference in Hiroshima, amid prospects that any such visits would trigger fierce criticism from neighboring countries, most notably China and South Korea.

"Whether Cabinet ministers will visit (Yasukuni) in their private capacity is an issue of their belief. So they are free" to go, he added. "I will not request my ministers to visit or not to visit (the shrine). I should not do that."

Government and ruling party sources told Kyodo News last week that Abe will refrain from visiting Yasukuni on the anniversary out of consideration for relations with China and South Korea, which have already been plagued by territorial rows as well as perceptions of Japan's wartime aggression in Asia.

The Shinto shrine honors convicted Class-A war criminals along with millions of Japan's war dead. The neighbors view it as a symbol of Japan's past militarism and have criticized previous visits to the shrine by prime ministers and lawmakers.

On Tuesday, Abe reiterated he wants to continue to mourn and respect those who sacrificed themselves for the state. "I haven't changed my mind."

But Abe also seems to have to consider the stance of his political allies.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the New Komeito party, or a junior coalition partner of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, expressed his hope that ministers will not visit the shrine.

"There is a past in which (the Yasukuni visit by Cabinet members) caused diplomatic problems. We are required to make a further smarter response in order to swiftly improve relations with some neighboring countries," Yamaguchi separately told reporters in Hiroshima. "The prime minister well understands that," he added.