Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura on Friday visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen by Japan's neighbors as a symbol of its past militarism.
The visit by members of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's Cabinet to the Shinto shrine, which honors convicted war criminals along with more than 2.4 million war dead, comes ahead of the 76th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II on Sunday.
Kishi became the second defense minister to pay respects at the shrine since the Defense Ministry was created in January 2007 through the reorganization of the Defense Agency. Tomomi Inada visited the shrine in late 2016.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will not visit the shrine, but is planning instead to make a tamagushi ritual offering at his personal expense, informed sources said Friday.
Suga is believed to have decided to skip the visit out of diplomatic consideration for Japan's neighbors.
No sitting prime minister has visited the shrine since Shinzo Abe in December 2013. That trip drew a sharp backlash from China and South Korea and was also criticized by the United States.
Nishimura said he made an offering, paid for out of his own pocket, as a member of the House of Representatives.
"I prayed for those who passed away in the war to rest in peace. Japan's prosperity was built on their sacrifice. I vowed to continue pushing Japan forward on its postwar path as a pacifist state, and to never allow the horrors of war to come upon us again," he told reporters.
Abe was still prime minister for last year's anniversary and four of his Cabinet ministers visited the shrine then, including Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi and education minister Koichi Hagiuda.
No Cabinet members went to the shrine during its biannual festivals last October or in April. Suga took office in September last year.
Nishimura's visit came amid a surge in COVID-19 cases across Japan. The nationwide tally of daily cases topped 18,000 on Thursday, eclipsing the previous high of 15,812 from a day earlier.
Tokyo, currently under its fourth state of emergency over the pandemic and having just finished hosting the Olympics, reported 4,989 new cases on Thursday, the second-most on record.
Established in 1869 to commemorate those that gave their lives for Japan, Yasukuni in 1978 added Gen. Hideki Tojo, a wartime prime minister, and other convicted war criminals to the war dead enshrined there.
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