Three of the 18 ministers in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet paid their respects at the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Thursday, triggering criticism from China and South Korea that endured Japan's wartime brutality.
Keiji Furuya, state minister in charge of North Korea's past abductions of Japanese nationals, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo, and administrative reform minister Tomomi Inada visited Yasukuni, where convicted Class-A war criminals are enshrined along with Japan's war dead.
"It is not something for other countries to criticize or interfere with," Furuya said after paying his respects, revealing that he wrote his name and title of state minister in the register book.
The Chinese government summoned Japan's ambassador to protest the same day after the ministers visited the Shinto shrine, while South Korea's Foreign Ministry issued a statement criticizing their visits.
The visits came on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II in 1945. Neighboring countries, most notably China and South Korea, view Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan's past militarism and criticize visits to the shrine by lawmakers as glossing over 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 had said he would not instruct his Cabinet members on whether they should visit the shrine.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga tried to play down concerns about the repercussions of the visits, saying it was up to each minister.
"When Cabinet ministers visit there in a private capacity, it comes down to freedom of religious beliefs," Suga said. "The government should not step in."
A cross-party group of around 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 included Shintaro Ishihara, co-head of the Japan Restoration Party, and LDP Youth Division director Shinjiro Koizumi, whose father Junichiro Koizumi drew the ire of China and South Korea for visiting the shrine when he was prime minister.
Abe himself chose to send a ritual offering rather than to visit the shrine on Thursday, apparently to avoid further straining ties with Beijing and Seoul, which have already been damaged by territorial rows and disputes over wartime history.