Japan minister visits controversial war shrine, move likely to anger China, South Korea

TOKYO (AFP) - A Japanese state minister visited a controversial war shrine in Tokyo on Sunday in a move likely to anger China and South Korea which see it as a symbol of Japan's militarist past.

Mr Keiji Furuya, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, paid homage at the Yasukuni shrine in the morning ahead of its annual spring festival which runs from Monday to Wednesday.

"I made the visit today so that it would not interrupt my official duty," Mr Furuya said in a statement to Japanese media.

"It is natural for a Japanese to express his sincere condolences and pray for the souls of those who sacrificed their lives for the country."

The 145-year-old Shinto shrine honours Japan's war dead including several leaders condemned as "Class A" war criminals by the US-led allied powers and executed after World War II.

Mr Furuya, who has regularly visited Yasukuni during its annual spring and autumn festivals and the August 15 anniversary of Japan's surrender, is the second minister in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet to go there in the past week.

Mr Abe, known for his nationalist views, drew protests himself from China and South Korea when he visited the shrine last December at a time when Japan's ties with the neighbouring countries were severely strained over territorial disputes and differences in historical perceptions.

Washington said at the time it was "disappointed" by Mr Abe's visit as it would raise regional tensions.

Conservative Japanese parliamentarians make pilgrimages to the shrine during spring and autumn festivals and on the war anniversary.

Mr Abe is widely expected to refrain from visiting the shrine during its spring festival ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to Tokyo from Wednesday to Friday.