A man and woman from Hong Kong charged with trespassing on the grounds of the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo in December pleaded not guilty Thursday in the first hearing of their case at the Tokyo District Court.

Kwok Siu-kit, 55, and Yim Man-wa, 26, claimed they had a "legitimate reason" to enter the Shinto shrine, which honors millions of war dead along with convicted war criminals, saying they intended to "urge the Japanese government to reflect on (Japan's) wartime past."

According to the Tokyo police, the two entered the shrine, often seen as a symbol of the country's militarist past by neighboring countries including China and South Korea, at around 7 a.m. on Dec. 12. Kwok allegedly set fire to a piece of cardboard and held a flag protesting the 1937-38 Nanking Massacre, while Yim is suspected of filming the scene.

Video uploaded by a Hong Kong-based activist group appeared to show Kwok burning a makeshift memorial tablet with the name of wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who is enshrined at Yasukuni, written on it, and shouting out, "Down with militarism! Don't forget the Nanjing Massacre! Japan must apologize!" before being subdued by security guards. The city of Nanjing was known as Nanking at the time of the massacre.

The group identified Kwok as a state-employed lifeguard and Yim as a journalist.

China claims over 300,000 people were killed in the Nanking Massacre, while Japan disputes the numbers, citing estimates from historians that vary between tens of thousands and 200,000.

Visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni routinely draw angry responses from those that suffered under the Japanese occupation before and during World War II.