TOKYO – A cross-party group of about 100 Japanese lawmakers on Friday paid homage at the war-linked Yasukuni shrine during its autumn festival, a day after a Cabinet minister’s visit drew criticism from China and South Korea.
The number was larger than during the shrine’s recent festivals last autumn and this spring, which each saw about 70 lawmakers visit. Often a source of diplomatic friction, the Shinto shrine is viewed by Beijing and Seoul, both of which suffered from Japan’s wartime aggression, as a symbol of its past militarism.
The group included lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party for the People, and the Japan Innovation Party.
Yasukuni shrine honors convicted war criminals such as wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, along with over 2.4 million war dead. Past visits by Japanese politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013, have angered Japan’s Asian neighbors.
Abe refrained from making a visit in person and instead sent a ritual offering on Thursday, the first day of the four-day festival.
But Seiichi Eto, minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, became the same day the first Cabinet member to visit the shrine in over two years. He is believed to have conservative views similar to Abe’s.
“I visited the shrine as a private citizen and I don’t think it will have diplomatic ramifications,” Eto told reporters on Friday.
The festival comes at a time when Japan has seen ties with China thaw markedly but relations with South Korea worsen sharply over a dispute which dates back to World War II.
China said Thursday that Abe’s ritual offering and Eto’s Yasukuni visit reflected their “wrong attitude” toward history — a form of words less harshly critical than in the past.
South Korea, meanwhile, expressed its deep regret, but it did not step up its criticism ahead of South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak Yon’s visit to Japan next week for Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony on Tuesday. Arrangements are being made for Abe and Lee to meet.
Ties between Tokyo and Seoul have sunk to the lowest level in years since a series of court rulings in South Korea last year that ordered Japanese firms to compensate for wartime forced labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
The rulings run counter to Japan’s position that the issue of compensation was settled finally and completely in a 1965 bilateral agreement.
Abe has said Japan should continue dialogue with South Korea despite the recent spat but he also reiterated that it is Seoul that should remedy the situation.