TOKYO (AP) — Dozens of Japanese lawmakers paid homage at a national war shrine Tuesday morning, risking more anger from neighbors South Korea and China over visits they see as failures to acknowledge Japan's militaristic past.
The lawmakers from various parties were seen making offerings to mark the spring festival at Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including World War II leaders convicted of war crimes.
Japanese media said 168 lawmakers paid the visits, which follow donations to the shrine by the prime minister and visits by three Cabinet ministers over the weekend. The government said those visits were made in an unofficial capacity, but China and South Korea lodged protests.
Yasukuni's compound has a war museum that glorifies Japan's wartime past. The site is a focus of nationalist pride among Japanese conservatives and right-wingers.
Visits to the shrine by Japanese politicians are routinely criticized by China, South Korea and North Korea, which bore the brunt of Japan's pre-1945 militarist expansion through Asia. Critics regard the visits as evidence Japan's leaders do not acknowledge their country's responsibility for its militarist past.
Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe donated religious ornaments with "prime minister" written on them to mark Yasukuni Shrine's spring festival, but didn't visit the shrine himself. Former Prime Minister Taro Aso, who is now finance minister, and two other Cabinet ministers prayed at the shrine over the weekend.
"My understanding is that the three ministers paid visits to the shrine in their private capacity," Suga told a news conference Monday. "There is no government comment on their shrine visits as private citizens."
But at least one Cabinet minister, National Public Safety Commission chief Keiji Furuya, told reporters that he prayed as a state minister during his weekend visit.
"As a national lawmaker, it is only natural to offer prayers to the sacred spirits who sacrificed their lives for the country," Furuya said.
In Seoul, a Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed "deep concern and regret" over the actions by Abe and the other Cabinet members, calling Yasukuni a place that "glorifies Japan's wars of aggression that caused huge losses and pain to the peoples of neighboring countries."
South Korea "once again strongly urges the Japanese government to immediately stop its retrograde behavior which ignores history" and take measures to restore confidence among neighboring countries, spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters.
China's Foreign Ministry said it lodged a diplomatic protest over the "negative moves." Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing that how Tokyo treats Yasukuni Shrine is a test of Japan's ability to respect people in the countries it attacked.
"People of the whole world, including the Chinese people, are watching them. There is a mountain of iron-hard evidence for the crimes committed by Japanese invaders during the Second World War. Only by facing up to and deeply reflecting on the history of aggression can Japan possibly create a future and develop friendly and cooperative relations with the people of Asia," Hua said at a daily news briefing.
Suga acknowledged reports that South Korea canceled foreign ministerial talks but said the meetings later this month were at a planning stage and weren't official.
Hidehisa Otsuji, who heads a group of parliamentarians campaigning for official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, said Tuesday that it was "only natural to offer prayers to the sacred spirits who sacrificed their lives for the country. Therefore I have difficulties understanding the opposition from other nations."
The weekend visits came amid heightened tension among the Northeast Asian nations. Japan is at odds with South Korea over an island group in the Sea of Japan that Seoul has controlled since the 1950s, and is increasingly at odds with China over a group of small islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.
A group of Japanese ultra-nationalists planned Tuesday to approach East China Sea islands. The group registered to enter waters near the islands as a fishing vessel. The visit adds to risks of confrontation, however, with Chinese vessels circulating in the area.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and researcher Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.