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A Cabinet minister and at least 80 other Diet members visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine on Friday.

The Shinto shrine, which honors several Class-A war criminals as well as Japan’s war dead, is currently holding its annual spring festival.

The lawmakers’ visit follows a series of demonstrations in China that have been linked to Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni, along with the approval of textbooks criticized for glossing over Japan’s wartime atrocities.

Taro Aso, minister of internal affairs and communications, is the only Cabinet minister confirmed to have visited the shrine during the day.

Aso was taken to the shrine in a private vehicle after the day’s regular Cabinet meeting. He did not enter the main shrine or sign his name.

Also among a nonpartisan group of Diet members who paid a visit earlier in the day were senior vice ministers Hiroshi Imazu of the Defense Agency and Koya Nishikawa of the Cabinet Office, and parliamentary secretaries Masahiro Morioka of the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry, Junshiro Nishime of the Cabinet Office and Kazuko Nose of the Environment Ministry.

In addition to the 81 shrine-goers, another 88 Diet members were represented by proxy.

The nonpartisan group visits the Shinto shrine three times a year: for the spring and fall festivals and for the Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of the Pacific War.

“It’s a natural aspect of Japan and its people to pay their respects to the spirits of fallen soldiers,” according to LDP lawmaker Takao Fujii, who serves as the group’s vice chairman.

“It’s a pity that we cannot gain understanding from the people of neighboring countries, particularly China and South Korea, on this issue.”

Fujii brushed aside speculation connecting shrine visits with the recent demonstrations in China, stating that these views distort friendly relations between Japan and its neighbors.

Koizumi has visited Yasukuni each year since taking office in April 2001, despite repeated protests from China. Bilateral relations have cooled during this period.

With regard to this year, Koizumi has repeatedly said he will make an “appropriate decision” on the matter, without explicitly stating whether he will visit the shrine or not.

Fujii said his group hopes and strongly believes that the prime minister will visit again.

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