South Korea, China and Taiwan on Thursday voiced strong disapproval of visits by three Japanese Cabinet ministers to a Shinto shrine in Tokyo that honors war criminals along with the war dead, on the anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II.
In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai Young in a statement called the visits to Yasukuni Shrine on the 68th anniversary of Japan's surrender in the war "very deplorable," adding that the shrine "glorifies the history of imperialistic invasion."
"It shows that they still turn a blind eye to history," he said in the statement, titled "Until when do Japanese politicians lock their country up in Yasukuni?" according to Yonhap News Agency.
Earlier in the day, Keiji Furuya, state minister in charge of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo, and administrative reform minister Tomomi Inada visited the war-linked shrine to pay homage.
"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.
Neither Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe nor Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida went there, evidently to avoid escalating tensions with Japan's neighbors.
It is unusual for the South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman to issue a statement expressing regret over the issue when Japan's prime minister and foreign minister do not visit the shrine on the anniversary, according to Yonhap.
"We urge Japan to be proactive to win trust from neighboring countries by facing up to history with confidence and truly reflecting itself," the spokesman said.
In Beijing, the Chinese government summoned Japanese Ambassador Masato Kitera for a protest Thursday over the ministers' visits to the shrine.
In a meeting with Kitera, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin conveyed China's "strong protest and severe condemnation" of the shrine visits on the anniversary, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The statement said that no matter in what form or capacity Japanese leaders visit the war-linked shrine, it is essentially an attempt to "deny and beautify" Japan's history of militarism and invasion of its Asian neighbors.
During the meeting at the ministry that lasted about 45 minutes, Kitera, however, said his government is not in a position to make comments on Japanese political leaders' actions made in their private capacity, according to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing.
Kitera also told Liu that Japan has been following the path of "a peaceful country" since the end of the war and regards its relations with China as "one of the most important ones," according to the embassy.
It is very rare for the Chinese government to summon a Japanese ambassador for ministerial-level Yasukuni visits.
Yasukuni honors Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal along with millions of the war dead. Past visits to the Shinto shrine by Japanese political leaders have infuriated countries that were victims of Japanese wartime aggression, especially China and South Korea.
The war anniversary was marked at a time when Tokyo's relations with Beijing and Seoul have plummeted to the worst levels in many years over territorial and historical issues.
The Japanese Embassy in Beijing was guarded Thursday by more police officers and vehicles than usual, while the state-owned China Central Television aired a special program urging vigilance over the Abe government's "turn to the right."
Meanwhile, Taiwan also criticized the visits to the shrine by Japanese Cabinet ministers, saying they hurt the national sentiments of neighboring countries.
"We hope the Japanese government will learn a lesson from history and develop a friendly relationship with neighboring countries with a forward-looking thinking and responsible attitude," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anna Kao said.
Earlier on Thursday morning, a group of right-wing activists staged a protest outside Japan's de facto mission in Taiwan, the Interchange Association, to mark the 68th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.
They demanded that the Japanese government properly apologize for its wartime aggression and compensate all victims, including atomic-bomb survivors.
They said they were against the military alliance between Japan and the United States and that the U.S. military must pull out of Asia.
Activists participating in the protest also called for unity to reclaim the Tiaoyutai Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan and called Diaoyu by China.