Updated: 04/22/2014 12:55 | By Agence France-Presse

Japan lawmakers visit war shrine on eve of Obama trip

Nearly 150 Japanese lawmakers paid homage at the Yasukuni war shrine on Tuesday, raising the stakes in an already tense region on the eve of Barack Obama's visit.


Japan lawmakers visit war shrine on eve of Obama trip

Japanese lawmakers follow a Shinto priest (R) during a visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on April 22, 2014 - by Yoshikazu Tsuno

A cross-section of parliamentarians, including at least one cabinet minister, paid their respects at the shrine, which honours Japan's war dead, including a number of senior military and political figures convicted of war crimes.

China and South Korea see the shrine as a symbol of what they say is Japan's unwillingness to repent of its aggressive warring last century, while the United States tries to discourage visits, which it views as unnecessary provocations.

Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stayed away from Yasukuni, having offered a symbolic gift on Monday at the start of the three-day spring festival.

However, the right-leaning minister for internal affairs and communications, Yoshitaka Shindo, was among the worshippers early Tuesday, paying his second visit in 10 days.

"I renew my faith in peace so that such tragedies will never be repeated. This is the belief that I always keep in mind when I come to Yasukuni Shrine," he said, adding that he was there in a private capacity.

Shindo's grandfather was General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the figure sympathetically depicted by actor Ken Watanabe in Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima".

- Strained ties -

The mass visit will inevitably further aggravate strained ties in East Asia, and could irritate the White House, coming the day before the US president arrives on the first leg of a four-nation trip, which also includes Seoul.

Washington would desperately like Japan and South Korea -- its two chief allies in the region -- to bury the diplomatic hatchet and stand together against Beijing's increasingly confident regional swagger and against unpredictable Pyongyang.

Abe's own visit to the shrine on December 26 soon after a visit to Tokyo by US Vice President Joe Biden immediately sparked fury in Asia and earned him a slap on the wrist from Washington, which said it was "disappointed".

The Japanese premier's gift on Monday provoked a Chinese charge that he was offering "a slap in the face" to Obama.

Conservative lawmakers make regular trips to the shrine during spring and autumn festivals, and on the August 15 anniversary of Japan's defeat. 

They say their actions are natural, and compare the site with Arlington National Cemetery in the US, where America's war dead are honoured.

"Speaking personally, my father is enshrined here," said Hidehisa Otsuji, an upper-house lawmaker who was at Yasukuni. 

"The souls revered here are the people who lost their lives purely for the sake of the country."

About 160 lawmakers visited the shrine during the spring and autumn festivals last year.

Sanae Takaichi, the policy chief of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, who visited the shrine as a member of the group, said the reverence by politicians should not provoke diplomatic difficulties.

"It happens to be the time for the spring festival," she told reporters. "We welcome the US president's visit to Japan from the heart."

Chief Cabinet Secretary and Abe's righthand man Yoshihide Suga said the government would not interfere with shrine visits by cabinet members.

"When a minister visits the shrine personally, it is a matter of an individual's freedom of faith. The government should not step into it," he said.

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