In a rare move, Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his entire Cabinet opted not to visit Yasukuni Shrine on Sunday, the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, avoiding a ritual that has become a constant source of friction with South Korea and China.
It is the first time in nearly 30 years that the Cabinet has declined to visit the Shinto shrine on Aug. 15.
The shrine in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, served as Japan’s spiritual pillar for the war. It honors the nation’s 2.47 million war dead and convicted Class A war criminals. Visits by high-ranking politicians started drawing public attention in the 1980s, when Cabinet members from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party-led governments began going each year, drawing ire throughout Asia.
Still, the well-known problem didn’t stop at least 44 Diet members from making an appearance at the contentious shrine.
In an apparent attempt to stand up the rare gesture by the Democratic Party of Japan and the Cabinet, prominent members of the LDP — including President Sadakazu Tanigaki and Secretary General Tadamori Oshima — paid their respects at the shrine.
On Sunday morning, 20 Lower House and 21 Upper House members from a group of nonpartisan lawmakers who advocate visits to Yasukuni also went. The group included 11 lawmakers from the ruling DPJ, said Toshiei Mizuochi, director general of the group.
“It is unfortunate (that no ministers are visiting Yasukuni this year). It goes beyond the differences of parties and ideologies to pay respect to the war dead,” Mizuochi said.
Kan and his Cabinet members had declared in advance that they would not visit Yasukuni.
Kan has repeatedly said he won’t visit as long as he is in office, because the shrine’s habit of honoring war criminals makes official visits a chronic problem.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told reporters earlier that it has been past government policy that ministers refrain from offering prayers at Yasukuni.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made several sojourns to the shrine during his 2001 to 2006 tenure, bringing relations with China to a longtime low. The visit on his final year in office provoked especially harsh criticism from China and South Korea.
Since Koizumi, no prime minister has officially visited the shrine, although some Cabinet members have made individual visits.
Other lawmakers who appeared on Sunday include House of Councilors Vice President Hidehisa Otsuji of the LDP, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara who are regular visitors.