TOKYO – Dozens of Japanese lawmakers on Wednesday paid their respects at a war shrine vilified as a symbol of the country's past militarism, amid concerns Tokyo may build up its armed forces against the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear test explosion.
Eighty-four parliament members, including a top adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, attended the annual fall festival at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors executed wartime leaders among millions of war dead. Ninety other lawmakers were represented by their aides.
The visit could incense China and South Korea, which suffered heavily under Japan's colonial aggression last century and have repeatedly complained that such trips by Japanese leaders reflect this nation's lack of remorse for its past behavior.
The group pilgrimage also comes amid worries in the region that North Korea's recent nuclear test could push Japan to expand its military, threatening the fragile coalition forged between the United States, Japan and its neighbors against the North's actions.
Foreign Minister Taro Aso caused a stir Wednesday by suggesting that Japan, which lies in range of North Korean missiles, should at least discuss developing a nuclear deterrent to counter the threat posed by the North's Oct. 9 detonation of an atomic device.
But the prime minister quickly scotched the idea that Japan might abandon its postwar principles of not possessing, developing or allowing nuclear bombs on Japanese soil. "That debate is finished," Abe said.
Abe, who succeeded the popular Junichiro Koizumi promising to pursue a more assertive foreign policy, has been a strong supporter of Japanese leaders visiting the shrine.
He reportedly made a trip there in April, but he hasn't said whether he plans to go as prime minister. Koizumi's visits angered China and South Korea, causing those countries' leaders to refuse to meet with him, and Abe is trying to mend relations.
"The largest obstacle to Japan's diplomacy in Asia is how to deal with issues of history," said Lu Xijun, a professor in international relations at Tokyo's Daito Bunka University. "Even now, the Chinese see Japan in relation to the past."
Some of the lawmakers who visited Yasukuni on Wednesday said they would push for Abe to also pray there to show his respects for those who gave their lives in battle, despite protests from Japan's neighbors.
"Obviously, it is difficult for the prime minister to make a visit under the current circumstances. But we will continue to ask the prime minister to visit the shrine himself," said Tsutomu Kawara, a ruling party lawmaker and former defense chief, after the group visit.