Tokyo, Japan, Oct 18 – Dozens of Japanese lawmakers visited a controversial war shrine on Tuesday in an annual pilgrimage criticised by China and South Korea, which see it as a painful reminder of Tokyo’s aggressive past.
The group of about 85 politicians arrived at the leafy Yasukuni shrine in central Tokyo during a four-day autumn festival.
Led by priests, the dark-suited lawmakers entered the main shrine building to pray for Japan’s war dead as they bowed at the threshold.
The visit comes a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — often criticised for what some see as revisionist views on Japan’s wartime record — sent an offering to the shrine, but avoided a visit.
Yasukuni honours millions of Japanese war dead, but also senior military and political figures convicted of war crimes after World War II.
The indigenous Shinto religious shrine has for decades been a flashpoint for criticism by countries that suffered from Japan’s colonialism and aggression in the first half of the 20th century, including China and Korea.
South Korea in a statement expressed “deep concern and disappointment over the fact that (lawmakers) have once again sent offerings to and paid tribute at the Yasukuni Shrine, which glorifies Japan’s past war of aggression”.
Seoul called on Japanese politicians to “demonstrate through action their humble self-reflection and sincere remorse for Japan’s past wrongdoings”.
– Paying respects –
While Japan-China relations have been on the mend, Beijing also had a frosty response to the lawmakers’ visit.
“We hope Japan’s politicians can maintain a correct view of history, and do more to promote cooperation with and win the trust of neighbouring Asian countries,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
Earlier Tuesday four Chinese coastguard ships entered Japan’s territorial waters close to disputed islands that have been a thorn in the side of diplomatic relations for years.
Visits to Yasukuni by senior Japanese politicians routinely draw an angry reaction from Beijing and Seoul. More controversial than the shrine itself is an accompanying museum that depicts Japan as a liberator of Asia and a victim of the war.
Abe and other nationalists say Yasukuni is a place to remember fallen soldiers and compare it to Arlington National Cemetery in the United States.
“Every country pays respects to people who died for his or her country,” said Hidehisa Otsuji, who headed the group of lawmakers.
The site attracts many ordinary visitors who come to pay their respects to friends and relatives who died in military conflicts.
“I heard that my grandfather died in the battlefield so I came here to comfort his spirit,” said Kazuya Ono, a 40-year-old businessman, who visited Yasukuni on Tuesday.
“I prayed for him to be well in heaven.”
Abe visited the shrine in December 2013 to mark his first year in power, a pilgrimage that sparked fury in Beijing and Seoul and earned a diplomatic rebuke from close ally the United States which said it was “disappointed”.
He has since refrained from going, sending ritual offerings instead.