Internal affairs minister Shindo visits Yasukuni Shrine

Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Saturday, with the lawmaker describing his attendance as "a private matter."

"I did it as a private matter which I am free to decide," he told Kyodo News after the contentious visit, which could draw ire from China and South Korea that see the shrine as a symbol of Japan's past imperialism.

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to refrain from visiting ahead of a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama on April 24 in Tokyo, Shindo's move came earlier than last year and well ahead of the shrine's annual spring festival on April 21 to 23.

Shindo also visited the shrine last April, on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, in October and on New Year's Day.

In Seoul, the South Korean Foreign Ministry criticized the visit as an act directly challenging neighboring countries that suffered the aggression of Japanese imperialism as well as the international community.

Amid strained ties with China and South Korea over historical and other issues, the Abe administration has left it up to each Cabinet minister to decide whether to visit the shrine.

When Abe visited the shrine on Dec. 26, the first anniversary of his taking office, Washington said in unusually strong language that it was "disappointed."