Dozens of lawmakers on Tuesday made a pilgrimage to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which neighbors China and South Korea see as a symbol of Tokyo’s militaristic past.
There were no senior Cabinet ministers among the group and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refrained from sending an offering, as he has done in the past, a shrine official said.
In total, 61 Diet members — mainly from Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party — visited the shrine and an additional 75 sent a representative, according to one deputy who briefed reporters at the scene.
The shrine, which honors 2.46 million war dead — including 12 convicted Class-A war criminals — is viewed by Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Tokyo’s past aggression.
The site has for decades been a flashpoint for criticism by countries that suffered under Japan’s colonialism and aggression in the first half of the 20th century.
In October, Abe sent a ritual offering to the shrine but did not visit, a move seen as an effort to minimize protests from neighbors over the issue.
Abe visited in December 2013 to mark his first year in power, a move that sparked fury in Beijing and Seoul and earned a diplomatic rebuke from close ally the United States, which said it was “disappointed” by the action. But he has since refrained from going and sent ritual offerings instead.
Abe and other nationalists say Yasukuni is merely a place to remember fallen soldiers, and compare it with Arlington National Cemetery in the United States.
Tokyo is also seeking warmer ties with Beijing and Seoul amid global concern over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
The group of lawmakers visits Yasukuni on multiple occasions every year, including Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.
“We pay visits wishing nobody else would ever be enshrined here,” said Hidehisa Otsuji, a former vice president of the House of Councillors who heads the group.
The group did not visit the shrine during the autumn festival in October as it overlapped with the campaign period for the general election. However, Otsuji, a veteran LDP lawmaker, paid a visit alone.