Despite the hectic runup to the general election, former Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, as well as a Cabinet minister and other Diet members, found time to visit Yasukuni Shrine on Saturday.
Prime Minister Taro Aso, however, opted not to visit the shrine, which is widely viewed as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, on the 64th anniversary of the end of the war.
Thirty-five current and former Diet members visited as a group that encourages lawmakers to visit Yasukuni and paid their respects.
The turnout was more than expected, said Yoshinobu Shimamura, a former Lower House member who chairs the group.
The shrine, which honors the nation’s 2.47 million war dead, along with convicted Class A war criminals, has long been a source of friction with Japan’s neighbors.
Koizumi made annual visits to Yasukuni during his 2001-2006 tenure as prime minister, and his visit in his final year in office provoked especially harsh criticism from China and South Korea.
Koizumi did not respond to reporters’ questions during his visit, while Abe said he visited the shrine to pay his respects to the war dead.
Asked about Aso’s decision to refrain, Shimamura said he thought the prime minister would probably like to visit the shrine as he went there before becoming prime minister.
“With the election coming up, there are various opinions from those who promote the visits and who don’t within the Liberal Democratic Party. I think Aso considered those voices,” said Shimamura.
Seiko Noda, state minister in charge of consumer affairs, was the only Cabinet member to visit Yasukuni on Saturday.
While acknowledging there are various views on the shrine, she visits Yasukuni annually as she considers the day important despite her status as a minister, she said.
Noda said visiting Yasukuni reconfirmed for her that “we should never have a war. Peace is not something that naturally exists — it is something that has been built.”
Democratic Party of Japan President Yukio Hatoyama was absent from Yasukuni. He has already declared that he will not visit the shrine as prime minister if the DPJ takes power in the election.
Hatoyama has also mentioned the possibility of establishing a new national facility that commemorates the war dead where people can go regardless of their religious views, including the Emperor.
Shimamura, however, slammed the proposal, saying it is questionable whether the spirits of the war dead would chose that option.
He also said a new facility would probably not attract the same crowds. Last year, over 150,000 people visited the shrine.
Despite the hot summer weather, a wide range of people were at Yasukuni Saturday.
Information from Kyodo added