Two of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet ministers visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday, in a move likely to trigger criticism from neighbors of Japan that suffered its wartime brutality.
The two -- Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo and Keiji Furuya, state minister in charge of North Korea's past abductions of Japanese citizens -- visited the Shinto shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines convicted Class-A war criminals along with Japan's war dead.
"It is not something for other countries to criticize or interfere with," Furuya said after paying homage, revealing that he wrote his name and job title as state minister in the register book.
The visit comes on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II in 1945. Its neighbors, most notably China and South Korea, view Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, warning that lawmakers visiting the shrine are glossing over such wartime history.
Shindo told reporters at Yasukuni that he visited the shrine as a "private person," not as a state minister, adding he had not consulted with Abe before making the visit.
A few ministers had indicated they would visit Yasukuni on the anniversary. Abe has said he would not instruct his Cabinet members on whether or not they should visit the shrine.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga tried to play down concerns about the repercussions of such visits by saying that it is up to each minister.
"When Cabinet ministers visit there in their private capacity, it comes down to freedom of religious beliefs," Suga said. "The government should not step in."
A bipartisan group of about 90 lawmakers, a much bigger number than in recent years, also visited the Shinto shrine. Sanae Takaichi, policy chief of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Yuichiro Hata, and Takeo Hiranuma, deputy head of the Japan Restoration Party, were among them.
"Everywhere in the world, people mourn the loss of those who died for their countries and pay respect," Takaichi told reporters.
Other lawmakers who visited the shrine on Thursday include Shintaro Ishihara, co-head of the Japan Restoration Party, and LDP's Youth Division director Shinjiro Koizumi, whose father Junichiro Koizumi drew the ire of China and South Korea for visiting the shrine as prime minister.
Abe himself sent a ritual offering to the shrine on Thursday, but avoided visiting there apparently out of concern that such an act would further strain ties with Beijing and Seoul, which have already been damaged by territorial disputes and other historical issues.