85 Japan lawmakers visit controversial Yasukuni war shrine to mark autumn festival

A Shinto priest (right) leads a pack of lawmakers at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Oct 18, 2016.
A Shinto priest (right) leads a pack of lawmakers at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Oct 18, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - A group of 85 Japanese lawmakers visited a controversial war shrine on Tuesday (Oct 18), in an annual pilgrimage that has angered China and South Korea, who see it as a painful reminder of Tokyo's warring past.

They arrived at the leafy Yasukuni shrine in downtown Tokyo during a four-day autumn festival. It was not immediately clear if any Cabinet ministers were among the group.

Led by priests, the lawmakers, clad in dark suits, entered the main shrine building to pray for Japan's war dead as they bowed at the threshold.

The visit comes a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - who has been criticised for what some see as a revisionist take on the country's wartime record - sent an offering to the shrine, but avoided a visit.

The site honours millions of Japanese war dead, but also senior military and political figures convicted of war crimes after World War II.

It has for decades been a flashpoint for criticism by countries that suffered from Japan's colonialism and aggression in the first half of the 20th century, including China and the two Koreas.

Visits by senior Japanese politicians routinely draw an angry reaction from Beijing and Seoul, and more controversial than the shrine is an accompanying museum that paints Japan as a liberator of Asia and a victim of the war.

Mr Abe and other nationalists say Yasukuni is a place to remember fallen soldiers and compare it to Arlington National Cemetery in the United States.

"Every country pays respects to people who died for his or her country," Mr Hidehisa Otsuji, who headed the group of lawmakers, told reporters on Tuesday.

On Monday, speaking in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying blasted Mr Abe's offering, urging Japan to "reflect on its aggressive history and take concrete actions to win back the trust of its Asian neighbours and the international community".

Mr Abe visited in December 2013 to mark his first year in power, a pilgrimage that sparked fury in Beijing and Seoul and earned a diplomatic rebuke from close ally the United States, which said it was "disappointed" by the action.

He has since refrained from going, sending ritual offerings instead.