TOKYO – Dozens of Japanese parliament members, including two Cabinet ministers, visited a controversial war shrine on Thursday amid heightening tensions between Japan and its neighbors over territorial disputes. Chinese media slammed the head of Japan's top opposition party for also going, calling his visit a provocation.
The politicians were attending an autumn festival. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda did not join them, but opposition leader Shinzo Abe, seen as the front-runner to succeed Noda, paid his respects there the day before.
The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is controversial because, along with honoring 2.5 million war dead, it honors 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted of war crimes. It remains a focus of nationalist pride among Japanese conservatives and right-wingers.
China's Xinhua News Agency slammed Abe's visit, saying in an editorial Wednesday that it was "the latest of a flurry of Japan's provocative moves against China, and would further poison bilateral ties."
Abe is a former prime minister who is well right of center and considered a hawk on China. But his party is believed to be in good position to defeat Noda's in upcoming elections, which could bring him back to the national helm.
Previous visits to the shrine by political leaders have been harshly criticized by China and North and South Korea, which bore the brunt of Japan's pre-1945 militarist march through Asia. The visits are regarded as evidence that Japan's leaders do not acknowledge their country's responsibility for its colonialist past.
"The Yasukuni Shrine issue is about whether Japan correctly acknowledges its history of invasion and of Japanese militarism, and about the feelings of the people in victims' countries, including China," China's state broadcaster CCTV quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei as saying.
Japan's chief Cabinet spokesman said the two ministers attended the festival in a private capacity, and played down its significance.
But the visits come as Japan is increasingly at odds with China over a group of small islands in the East China Sea that both countries claim, and with South Korea over another disputed island that has been controlled by Seoul since the 1950s.
Anger over a decision last month by Japan to nationalize the disputed islands — called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China — led to mass demonstrations across China and has soured diplomatic and economic relations between the two.