Japan's internal affairs minister and around 160 lawmakers on Friday visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine during the annual autumn festival amid soured ties with China and South Korea, which strongly disapprove of elected officials paying respect at the shrine.
On his first visit to the Shinto shrine in Tokyo since Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo made an offering paid with his own money.
"I visited here in a private capacity to pay homage to those who died in the war and to pray for peace," Shindo said. "I don't think it'll develop into a diplomatic issue."
Past visits by prime ministers and Cabinet members to Yasukuni, which enshrines convicted Class-A war criminals along with Japan's war dead, have angered China and South Korea, both of which suffered Japan's wartime aggression.
In Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned Japanese Ambassador Masato Kitera over the shrine visits.
During a 40-minute meeting there, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin conveyed to the ambassador China's position on the shrine, according to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing.
Meanwhile in Seoul, a South Korean government official criticized the visits by saying, "Japanese politicians should not visit Yasukuni Shrine, which justifies Japan's history of aggression."
South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party issued a statement calling the shrine visits as "an attempt to glorify (Japan's) history of aggression."
"The number of Cabinet ministers visiting Yasukuni Shrine sharply increased since the inauguration of Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe and we can never hide deep concerns about Japan's moving to the far-right," it said.
Abe, often seen as right-leaning, refrained from making a controversial visit to the shrine and instead sent a "masakaki" tree offering Thursday, in an apparent bid to avoid aggravating ties with Beijing and Seoul and to lay the groundwork for future summit talks.
With no official summit talks with the two countries since taking office in December, Abe has refused to say when or whether he would visit Yasukuni out of concern that it would develop into "a political and diplomatic issue."
But he has taken the position that Cabinet ministers should decide for themselves whether to go or not based on their own beliefs.
About 160 members of a bipartisan group of lawmakers promoting visits to the shrine went to Yasukuni on Friday, close to a record 166 for the group at the spring festival in April, as Japan saw an increase in the number of conservative lawmakers after recent elections in both the upper and lower houses.
"We should continue visiting the shrine. That is the only way to avoid turning this into a diplomatic issue," said Sanae Takaichi, policy chief of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, who also paid a visit earlier in the day, said there is no change in Japan's diplomatic position.
"The government will continue to strengthen ties with neighboring countries from a broad perspective while making sure these issues (such as Yasukuni) will not affect our relations as a whole," Kato said at a regular press conference.
"The prime minister made his own choice this time, but I think he will eventually visit the shrine," said LDP upper house lawmaker Hidehisa Otsuji, who heads the cross-party group.