TOKYO - A Japanese cabinet minister visited a controversial war shrine in Tokyo on Saturday, in a move that sparked rebukes from South Korea and China, both of whom view it as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
Television footage showed Yoshitaka Shindo, minister for internal affairs and communications, paying homage Saturday morning at the Yasukuni shrine.
The shrine honours Japan's war dead including several high-level officials executed for war crimes after World War II.
Shindo, a regular visitor to Yasukuni, insisted that it was a "private matter", playing down the potential for diplomatic fallout. "Offering condolences to the war dead can be seen in any country," Shindo was quoted by new agency Jiji as saying following his visit, which came ahead of the shrine's annual spring festival on April 21 to 23.
But South Korea criticised the trip, calling it a "challenge" to its neighbours, according to news agency Yonhap.
"The Japanese cabinet member's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine that glorifies (Japan's) past aggressions, made again in defiance of the international worries, constitutes a head-on challenge to the neighbouring countries that suffered from Japan's past imperialism as well as to the international community," Yonhap cited a foreign ministry statement as saying.
China also hit back at the visit.
"This once again shows the mistaken attitude of the current Japanese Cabinet toward history," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement, according to the official news agency Xinhua.
A group of Japanese parliamentarians makes pilgrimages to the shrine during spring and autumn festivals and on August 15, the anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II, enraging neighbouring nations.
China and South Korea see it as a brutal reminder of Tokyo's imperialist past and wartime aggression, and its failure to repent for its history.
In December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made his first visit as premier to the shrine since he took office in December 2012.
Seoul reacted angrily, while Japan's ally the United States said it was "disappointed" by the prime minister's decision as it would raise regional tensions.
Abe, known for his nationalist views, previously served as premier from 2006 to 2007 without visiting Yasukuni.
His visit - which came at a time when Japan's ties with China have turned particularly sour over a territorial dispute regarding islands in the East China Sea - also prompted an angry reaction from Beijing.
Earlier Saturday, three Chinese government ships entered the territorial waters around the East China Sea islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, for several hours, according to the Japanese coastguard.
Abe is widely expected to refrain from visiting the shrine during the upcoming spring festival ahead of a summit with US President Barack Obama on April 24 in Tokyo.