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TOKYO – Visits by Cabinet ministers and lawmakers to a shrine honoring Japan's war dead, including 14 World War II leaders convicted of atrocities, signal Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's determination to pursue a more nationalist agenda after months of focusing on the economy.
Nearly 170 Japanese lawmakers paid homage at Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday. A day earlier, visits by three Cabinet ministers, said by the government to be unofficial, drew protests from neighbors South Korea and China over actions they view as failures to acknowledge Japan's militaristic past.
China and South Korea — Japan's No. 1 and No. 3 trading partners, respectively — bore the brunt of Tokyo's pre-1945 militarist expansion in Asia and routinely criticize visits to the shrine. Almost seven decades after the war ended, it still overshadows relations. Adding to the discord, Chinese surveillance vessels were patrolling Tuesday near islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both countries.
Abe did not visit Yasukuni but instead donated ceremonial ornaments marked "Prime Minister" to the shrine, whose compound has a war museum glorifying Japan's wartime past.
If Abe was attempting to avoid pointed responses from Japan's neighbors by not visiting the shrine himself, he was unsuccessful.
"The way they recognize history and treat the issue of the Yasukuni Shrine is an important criterion, based on which their close neighbors in Asia and the global community will watch and learn what road Japan will take in the future," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young urged "deep soul-searching" by Japan to discover how such visits are seen in neighboring countries.
"Yasukuni Shrine is a place to ... glorify wars," he said.
Several vice ministers and top executives of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party joined Tuesday's group pilgrimage to the shrine. This is one of several times during the year when lawmakers customarily pay their respects.
Among the ministers who visited over the weekend was Taro Aso, a former prime minister now serving as finance minister. He said he usually visits Yasukuni two or three times a year.
"It's nothing new such that it should have an impact on foreign relations," Aso told reporters Tuesday.
Leaders of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan generally refrained from visiting the shrine when the party was in power, from 2009 until late last year.
The shift toward a more conservative agenda under Abe was bound to happen, sooner or later.
Though Abe has focused mostly on economic policy since taking office in December, he has campaigned for revising Japan's U.S.-inspired constitution, which renounced war after the country's defeat in World War II, and for recognizing the country's Self-Defense Forces as a national military. He also favors revising Japan's past apologies for atrocities committed by its Imperial Army before and during World War II. Those aims are outlined in the LDP's platform.
The party holds a strong majority in the lower house of parliament, but needs a robust showing in upper house elections in July to gain the mandate it wants for pushing ahead with other priorities, including constitutional revision. Even if it gains a strong upper house majority, it faces a tough decision by next fall on whether to go ahead with a commitment to raise the sales tax — a move expected to anger voters and possibly throw the economy back into recession.
Abe enjoys approval ratings of more than 70 percent, but the liberal-leaning Asahi newspaper said Tuesday he was jeopardizing much of that support by turning away from the economy at a time when there are no clear signs of a strong recovery.
"Why spark a source of friction?" Asahi asked. "What on earth is the Abe administration doing when improved relations with neighboring countries are most needed?"
Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University, said Abe's party has been "remarkably successful in staying on message, in staying focused on the economy."
"Some would still want to be cautious and try to focus on the economy, but the desire to talk about other nationalist policies may be too tempting. We have to see how much further they will go in this direction," Nakano said.
Abe last visited Yasukuni in October, when he was opposition leader. As prime minister in 2006-2007, before resigning for health reasons, he refrained from making any visits. As recently as February he said his decision not to visit the shrine during that time was his "greatest regret."
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday he would try to avoid adverse fallout from the latest Yasukuni visits.
"I will handle the situation so that this will not affect our bilateral relations," he said. "It is important to communicate on a political level, and our door for dialogue is always open."
Although government spokesman Yoshihide Suga earlier described the visits by members of Abe's Cabinet as "private," at least one Cabinet minister, National Public Safety Commission chief Keiji Furuya, told reporters that he prayed as a state minister during his visit Sunday.
The visits occurred as other sources of friction flare between Japan and its neighbors, especially a dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
A group of ultra-nationalists visited the area near the islands Tuesday as a record eight Chinese maritime surveillance ships patrolled nearby. Suga said the intrusion into Japan's territorial waters was "unacceptable." Tokyo lodged formal protests with the Chinese government.
A group of Japanese parliamentarians belonging to a Japan-China parliamentarian friendship group scrapped plans for a May 1-3 visit to China after Beijing said they could not meet with President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials. LDP officials said the island dispute was to blame, not Yasukuni, because China's message came before the weekend visits.
Anger over the islands dispute last year provoked anti-Japanese riots in China that hammered exports to the country's biggest market. Beijing quashed those demonstrations a few weeks after they started, but the risk to business ties and even of outright conflict persists.
Nakano said Japan may have miscalculated how China and South Korea would respond to the shrine visits.
"Japanese politicians fail to realize (the visits) are seen as provocations. It's one thing after another. It's the rightward shift of Japanese politics that I think (Seoul and Beijing) are more worried about," Nakano said.