A record 168 Diet members visited Tokyo’s war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday following visits by three Cabinet ministers and offerings by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday.

The group of lawmakers from various parties — the largest number since 1989, when head counts first began — visited the controversial Shinto shrine on the last day of its annual three-day spring festival despite warnings from China and South Korea.

Seoul has already canceled a trip to Japan by its foreign minister in protest of the Cabinet members’ visits.

None of Abe’s ministers were among the 168 who went Tuesday to the shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead, including convicted Class-A war criminals from World War II, but scores of vice ministers and other top lawmakers, as well as Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Sanae Takaichi, offered prayers.

A large majority of the group consisted of LDP lawmakers. The spike in the number of those visiting the shrine is believed to have resulted from an increase in the number of conservative rookie lawmakers who won seats in December’s Lower House election.

“I am very grateful that such a large number of lawmakers visited Yasukuni this time,” said Hidehisa Otsuji, an LDP Lower House lawmaker who heads a group campaigning for official visits to the shrine.

Although the government has maintained the position that it is normal for a lawmaker to honor people who have sacrificed their life for the country, the large-scale visit could further strain already rocky diplomatic relationships with neighboring countries.

South Korea on Monday canceled its foreign minister’s scheduled trip to Japan in the wake of the visits by Abe’s Cabinet ministers on Sunday, including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Yoshitaka Shindo, the minister of internal affairs and grandson of the general who commanded the Imperial Japanese Army defending Iwojima in 1945.

China lodged diplomatic protests with Japan over “negative behavior” with respect to the visits by Cabinet members, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday.

Hua stressed that the Yasukuni issue is connected to whether Japan has faced up to its history of militarist aggression and whether it can respect the feelings of the countries it attacked.

On Tuesday, the three ministers rebutted criticism that their weekend visit to the shrine will undermine relations with other nations.

“I visit (the shrine) two or three times a year,” Aso, who doubles as finance minister, said at a news conference. “I don’t think (the visit) will have an influence on our diplomacy.”

While Abe only offered a “masakaki” tree branch traditionally used in Shinto religious rituals, it remains uncertain whether he will forgo visiting the shrine Aug. 15 (the day Japan surrendered in World War II) or during the shrine’s autumn festival.

During his previous stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, Abe did not visit Yasukuni after repeated visits by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, angered Japan’s neighbors.

Last October, he visited the shrine during the autumn festival in the capacity of LDP leader.

Since becoming prime minister again in December, Abe has said it was “extremely regrettable” that he could not visit the shrine when he was previously in office.

Information from Kyodo added

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