TOKYO (AFP) - More than 100 Japanese lawmakers on Wednesday paid homage at the Yasukuni war shrine, risking fresh anger from Asian neighbours that were victims of Tokyo's 20th century aggression, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began a 10-day diplomatic push.
A cross-section of parliamentarians visited the shrine in central Tokyo as part of the spring festival, an AFP journalist witnessed.
A total of 106 lawmakers were there, the group said, however no Cabinet ministers were seen among them.
The shrine honours those who fought and died for Japan, but also includes a number of senior military and political figures convicted of the most serious war crimes.
"I feel very grateful anew that we have maintained peace for 70 years," said Hidehisa Otsuji, a lawmaker with the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who leads the group. "The souls (of the dead) must also be pleased with this."
The number of lawmakers who visited the shrine was lower than at both the spring and the autumn festivals last year, Otsuji said, citing busy schedules due to upcoming local elections.
Last year, three conservative female ministers visited the shrine during its autumn festival, but there was no indication on whether or not they would go this time. Seiichi Eto, a special adviser to Abe, went on Tuesday.
China and South Korea see the shrine as a symbol of what they say is Japan's unwillingness to repent for its aggressive warring. The United States tries to discourage visits, which it views as unnecessarily provocative.
Seoul was quick to condemn Wednesday's outing.
"We can't help expressing deep disappointment and regret over the visit by leading Japanese lawmakers to Yasukuni Shrine, which glorifies Japan's colonial aggression and the aggressive war," a statement from the South Korean foreign ministry said.
"The fact that leading Japanese figures continue to send offerings or visit the shrine, the symbol of Japan's past colonial aggression, 70 years after the end of the war illustrates how Japan is still unable to face its history properly."
Abe, who has not visited since December 2013, sent a symbolic offering of a small tree on Tuesday.
He has also said he may not repeat a formal apology for his country's World War II rampage in an upcoming statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.
On Wednesday Japan and China were reportedly arranging a meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Indonesia, where the two men are attending an Asia-Africa conference.
Local media said the meeting could take place as early as Wednesday evening. The two men met briefly at the Apec summit in China last year with an unenthusiastic handshake, but have never held a formal sit-down.
On Tuesday, Hong Lei, a spokesman for the China's foreign ministry, cautioned Abe over the symbolic importance of this year's anniversary.
"The Japanese leader must take concrete steps to honour (the country's) commitment of looking squarely at and reflecting upon its history of aggression, properly handle relevant issues, and win the trust of its neighbours and the international community," Hong said.
Abe suggested in a TV interview broadcast late Monday that provided he says he agrees with previous statements, "I don't think I need to write it again."
Beijing and Seoul argue that Tokyo has not properly atoned for its warmongering and insist that a landmark 1995 statement expressing deep remorse with apology - which was repeated in 2005 - must stand.
Abe will head to the United States this weekend on a week-long trip, during which he will address a joint session of congress, with attention focusing on what form of words he will use about WWII.
Observers say the speech may give an indication of his intentions in the run up to his summer statement.