Two members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet visited Yasukuni Shrine on Friday along with about 160 other lawmakers in a move likely to rile China and South Korea.
Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo insisted he went to the Shinto shrine in central Tokyo as a private citizen, hoping to tamp down the diplomatic fallout.
“I offered prayers in my private capacity,” he told reporters at Yasukuni. “I mourned people who lost their lives in wars and prayed for peace. I don’t think this will develop into a diplomatic issue at all.”
The other Cabinet member was Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato. Explaining his intention during a press briefing, Kato just repeated the set phrase government officials always use when explaining Yasukuni-related issues, almost word for word : “I believe it’s only natural to pray for people who fought (in the wars) and dedicated their lives to the state and to show respect for them.”
But South Korea immediately lashed out. The ruling Saenuri Party released a statement slamming the shrine visit by Shindo and the Diet members as “an irresponsible attempt to glorify (Japan’s) war of aggression,” alluding to the 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The party called on the South Korean government to address the matter head on.
Apart from wartime history issues, the two countries have been squabbling over a couple of outcroppings in the Sea of Japan called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea, which controls them.
Yasukuni Shrine is holding its semiannual Reitaisai ritual through Sunday. Abe donated a symbolic “masakaki” gift to the shrine in an apparent sign that he will avoid a visit.
Yasukuni, which honors around 2.5 million war dead, as well as war criminals from World War II, is a flash point for other parts of Asia, with disagreements about history badly coloring Japan’s relations in the region.
Numerous conservative lawmakers make pilgrimages to the shrine during spring and autumn festivals and on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II.
About 160 Diet members visited Yasukuni on Friday, according to the shrine. A record 166 lawmakers made the trip during the spring Reitaisai in April.
Abe, who was also prime minister from 2006 to 2007, has stayed away from Yasukuni since he took office in December. He visited the shrine last year, when he was in the opposition.
Conservatives say it is natural that they pay homage to people who lost their lives in the service of their country, and the shrine is no different from Arlington National Cemetery, where the United States honors its war dead.
Moderates dispute this and are seemingly supported by the U.S. administration, which this month began pushing for a little-known Tokyo cemetery to take its place in an apparent bid to sidestep the corrosive issue.
On a recent visit to Tokyo, Secretary of State John Kerry became the most senior foreign dignitary to visit Chidorigafuchi, with U.S. officials saying it is Japan’s “closest equivalent” to Arlington.