Japanese minister visits Tokyo war shrine

TOKYO (AFP) - A Japanese minister visited Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni war shrine on Sunday while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has dedicated equipment used in rituals in moves likely to anger China and South Korea.

The shrine, which honours around 2.5 million war dead - including 14 leading war criminals - is seen by Japan's Asian neighbours as a symbol of Tokyo's imperialist past.

Mr Keiji Furuya, the chief of the National Public Safety Commission, visited Yasukuni at the start of its annual spring festival, one of his secretaries and a shrine official said.

"It is natural for me as a parliament member to extend my sincere condolences to the sprites of the war dead who had served their lives for this country," Mr Furuya said after his visit.

Mr Abe did not make a pilgrimage but paid for equipment made of wood and fabric - which bears his name and title - which is used to decorate an altar, a shrine official said.

Visits to the shrine by government ministers and high-profile figures spark outrage in China and on the Korean peninsula, where many feel Japan has failed to atone for its brutal aggression in the first half of the 20th century.

Liberal politicians tend to stay away but conservative lawmakers have routinely visited to pay respect to the war dead as well as to demonstrate their ideological stance.

Mr Abe visited the shrine last year in his capacity as opposition leader before he took office as prime minister in December, leading to criticism from China's state-run media.

During his first spell as premier in 2006-7 he stayed away from the shrine as he tried to mend ties with neighbouring nations strained because of former premier Junichiro Koizumi's annual pilgrimage.

Sino-Japanese ties remain tense after a a long-simmering territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea intensified last year.