Japan's internal affairs minister and a cross-party group of 157 lawmakers visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on Friday during the annual autumn festival, drawing criticism from China and South Korea with which Japan has frayed ties.
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 the 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, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin conveyed to the ambassador China's position on the shrine, according to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing.
A South Korean government official in Seoul criticized the visits, 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 "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 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 having taken place since he assumed 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 his government has taken the position that Cabinet ministers should decide for themselves whether to go based on their own beliefs.
"We leave it up to each individual to decide whether they will visit the shrine or not. It comes down to freedom of religion," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference.
Friday's visit of 157 lawmakers promoting visits to the shrine is close to the recent record of 168 -- nearly a quarter of Japan's 722 parliamentarians -- at the spring festival in April.
Japan has seen an increase in the number of conservative lawmakers after recent elections for both the lower and upper 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 was one of the members who visited the shrine but 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 told reporters.
The cross-party group headed by LDP upper house lawmaker Hidehisa Otsuji visited the shrine during the spring and autumn festivals and on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.