Two Japanese ministers were among dozens of lawmakers who visited a war shrine today in a move sure to anger China and South Korea, which see it as a potent symbol of Tokyo's imperialist past.
Security was tight with hundreds of police surrounding the leafy Yasukuni shrine in the heart of Tokyo, as right-wing nationalists carried flags calling on visitors to pray for Japan's "heroic war dead" on the anniversary of the country's surrender in World War II.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative who is bent on reviving Japan as an economic force, was expected to stay away from the shrine but reportedly sent a ritual offering via an aide.
Yasukuni honours 2.5 million citizens who died in World War II and other conflicts, including 14 top convicted war criminals such as General Hideki Tojo, who authorised the attack on Pearl Harbor which drew The United States into the war.
Visits to the site by Japanese politicians enrage neighbouring nations, which view them as an insult and painful reminder of Tokyo's aggression in the first half of the 20th century, including a brutal 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula.
Yoshitaka Shindo, internal affairs and communications minister in Abe's cabinet, visited the shrine early today.
About 90 other lawmakers arrived at the site later in the morning.
"It was my personal decision to come here," Shindo told reporters, adding it was a "private" matter that should not affect Japan's diplomatic relations.
Another cabinet minister, Keiji Furuya, who is in charge of the North Korean abduction issue, also made the trip. Tokyo is pressing North Korea to return all Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang in the past - the victims were largely used to train North Korean spies.
"Consoling the souls of war dead is a purely a domestic issue," Furuya told reporters.
"This is not something that other countries are supposed to criticise or interfere with."
Abe gave a ritual offering earlier this year when nearly 170 lawmakers visited the shrine for a spring festival, grabbing international headlines and sparking diplomatic protests.
On last year's surrender anniversary, more than 50 lawmakers made the pilgrimage to the site near Japan's Imperial Palace, drawing protests from Seoul and Beijing.
On Tuesday, Seoul lashed out ahead of this week's anniversary, saying "our government and people will never tolerate such visits".
"We once again stress that there should be no trips by top Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni shrine," South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young told reporters.
Even at home there is significant opposition to Yasukuni, including among some relatives of those honoured there, who say it glorifies war and the darker chapters in Japan's history.
For many, however, walking down the shrine's stone paths lined with cherry trees and past imposing gates dedicated to Shinto - Japan's animist religion - is part of a ritual far removed from politics.
"My father held me only once before heading to the war zone knowing Japan would lose," 69-year-old Sumiko Iida told AFP Thursday.
"I'm absolutely against wars."
Chinese state media yesterday reported Abe's decision, relayed by the Japanese press and government sources, not to visit the "notorious" shrine.
Earlier in the week, the 35th anniversary of Japan and China normalising diplomatic relations passed quietly. Ties remain frosty following maritime skirmishes over a set of East China Sea islands that are disputed by both countries.
Observers have warned that the contested islands, which are believed to harbour mineral resources beneath their seabed, could be the flashpoint for military conflict between the two Asian giants.
Tokyo is locked in a separate territorial dispute with Seoul.
Abe has mostly focused his attention on stoking Japan's economy since sweeping December elections, but he also openly mulled changing the pacificist constitution imposed on Japan by The United States and its allies after the war. - AFP, August 15, 2013.