A total of 147 lawmakers, as well as two Cabinet ministers, visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday morning, in a move that could be perceived as provocative by China, South Korea — and even the United States.
Internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo visited the shrine ahead of the group Tuesday, the second day of its annual three-day spring religious festival, in what he called a “private” capacity, following another private visit April 12.
Shindo’s first visit was seen as an attempt to avoid controversy ahead of the planned visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, who was scheduled to arrive in Tokyo on Wednesday.
But the second visit — just a day before Obama’s arrival — could be perceived by the U.S. as a provocative gesture after Washington put strong pressure on Abe not to visit the shrine, which honors Class-A World War II war criminals as well as nearly 2.5 million Japanese war dead.
Asked about possible angry reactions from China and South Korea, Shindo told reporters that he believes the personal nature of his visit would deflect any criticism from the Asian neighbors.
He also denied Obama’s trip in any way affected his decision to visit the shrine.
“I have always made my decisions to come here on my own,” he said.
Later the same day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that the government has maintained a policy noninterference in Cabinet ministers’ decisions to go to Yasukuni, as long as they go there in a private capacity.
“We believe it is only a matter of course to pray for people who fought and sacrificed their precious lives for the sake of one’s country,” Suga told a news conference.
“We understand (Shindo) visited in a private capacity. This is a matter related to freedom of religion,” he said.
Later on the day, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato separately visited the shrine.
The group of nearly 150 lawmakers regularly visits the shrine for religious festivals held every fall and spring.
Among the lawmakers who visited the shrine, those from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party topped the list with 118, followed by Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) at 22.
Abe himself avoided visiting the shrine this time, instead offering a “masakaki,” or decorative tree used in Shinto rituals, for the spring festival.
While Tokyo will be the first stop on Obama’s weeklong Asia itinerary, Hidehisa Otsuji, an LDP Lower House lawmaker who heads the group in favor of visits to Yasukuni, declined comment on any connection between his shrine visit and Obama’s trip.
Noting his own father is enshrined at Yasukuni, Otsuji said: “I have continued visiting the shrine together with members of this group for decades now. All I can say is that I carried through on this tradition as usual. Nothing else.”
Otsuji, stressing his understanding that the shrine’s war dead are those “who sacrificed their lives in their utter devotion to the nation they love,” added: “I believe the prime minister decided to (dedicate the masakaki) after he contemplated what would be in the best interests of Japan. I have no issue with that.”
Abe paid a visit to the shrine last December in what he also described as a private capacity, drawing unusually explicit criticism from Washington, which expressed “disappointment” over the visit.
Keiji Furuya, another Cabinet minister who chairs the National Public Safety Commission, also made a visit Sunday.