China and South Korea expressed anger after nearly 150 Japanese lawmakers yesterday paid homage at the Yasukuni shrine which honours the nation's war dead, including war criminals, raising the stakes on the eve of US President Barack Obama's visit to East Asia.
A cross-section of parliamentarians, including at least one cabinet minister, paid their respects at the shrine, which honours those who have fought for Japan, including several senior military and political figures convicted of war crimes.
China and South Korea see the shrine as a symbol of what they say is Japan's unwillingness to repent for its aggressive warring last century. The United States tries to discourage visits, which it views as provocation.
In Beijing, foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the Yasukuni Shrine is a liability to Japan.
Nearly 150 Japanese lawmakers visit controversial war shrine
"If Japanese leaders insist on going to the shrine, such 'negative assets' will be heavier to bear," he said at a daily press briefing yesterday.
Qin said on Monday that China had expressed its disappointment after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent an offering to the shrine.
In Washington, the US State Department voiced its frustration. It said in a statement: "As we have indicated many times, we encourage Japan to continue to work with its neighbours to resolve concerns over history in an amicable way through dialogue.
"We believe that strong and constructive relations between countries in the region promote peace and stability and are in their interests and in the interests of the United States."
The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it "deplored" the mass visit to a "place that enshrined war crimes that caused a war and destroyed peace".
"I think it is such an empty gesture to talk about the future with neighbouring countries while paying respects to such a place," ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said.
Abe has stayed away from Yasukuni this year, but a right-leaning minister of his cabinet, Yoshitaka Shindo, was among the worshippers yesterday, paying his second visit in 10 days.
The mass visit will inevitably further aggravate strained ties in the region and could irritate the White House, coming the day before Obama arrives on the first leg of a four-nation trip which also includes South Korea.
Washington would desperately like Japan and South Korea, its two chief allies in the region, to bury the diplomatic hatchet and stand together against Beijing's increasingly confident regional swagger and against unpredictable Pyongyang.
Abe's own visit to the shrine on December 26 soon after a trip to Tokyo by US Vice-President Joe Biden sparked fury in East Asia and earned him a slap on the wrist from Washington, which said it was "disappointed".
Conservative lawmakers make regular trips to the shrine during spring and autumn festivals, and on the August 15 anniversary of Japan's second world war defeat.
They compare the site with Arlington National Cemetery in the US, where America's war dead are honoured.