TOKYO - Visits to a controversial war shrine by two Japanese ministers and South Korea's latest demand for an apology from Japan have further driven the strained bilateral relationship into a downward spiral.
Land and Transport Minister Yuichiro Hata and Public Safety Minister Jin Matsubara visited the Yasukuni Shrine separately yesterday, ignoring an appeal by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to his Cabinet to stay away.
Both ministers said they prayed in their private capacity at Yasukuni, long viewed by Japan's neighbours as a symbol of its past militarism. But Mr Matsubara signed himself as "minister" in the visitors' book.
The visits, the first by Cabinet ministers since Japan's Democrat Party came to power in 2009, predictably sparked anger in Seoul, with which Tokyo is currently embroiled in a renewed dispute over a group of islets.
In Beijing, official reaction to the shrine visits was subdued, with China busy preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang urged Japan to "squarely face up to its history of aggression, sincerely observe its promise to reflect on it and maintain China-Japan ties through actions".
But tempers flared after Japan detained 14 Chinese activists who landed on a disputed island chain called Diaoyu by the Chinese and Senkaku by the Japanese.
Yasukuni honours not only about 2.5 million of Japan's war dead, but also 14 leading war criminals from World War II.
This is why visits to the shrine by the prime minister or Cabinet ministers on Aug 15, a sensitive anniversary which Japan commemorates as the end of World War II, always stoke outrage, especially in China and South Korea.
A South Korean Foreign and Trade Ministry official called the shrine visits an "irresponsible act", saying: "We would like to see Japan face up to its history with a humble attitude."
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak was far less restrained in his demands.
On Tuesday, he insisted that Emperor Akihito must first apologise sincerely to Koreans killed in independence movements against their Japanese colonial masters if he wishes to visit South Korea.
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba called Mr Lee's remarks "extremely regrettable". Tokyo has lodged a protest through diplomatic channels.
But the South Korean leader was not done. In Liberation Day rites yesterday to mark the end of Japan's colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, Mr Lee made fresh demands on Japan to face up to its responsibility for the women forced to become sex slaves, or comfort women, during the war.
"This is not about compensation: This is about Japan's sincere apology for what it did. It's about the honour of the comfort women," he said.
Last Friday, the South Korean leader sparked furore in Tokyo when he made a surprise visit to the Seoul-controlled islets known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan. While past presidents had refrained from doing so, Mr Lee apparently sought to exploit anti-Japanese sentiments among South Koreans in a bid to revive his sagging popularity.
Also yesterday, a group of South Koreans, including singer Kim Jang Hoon and popular television actor Song Il Kook, reached the Takeshima islets in a 220km relay swim to mark Liberation Day. A Japanese TV station later said it was postponing the airing of a new drama series starring Song.