by Jon Day
TOKYO, Oct. 18 (Xinhua) -- Two Japanese Cabinet ministers' visit to a controversial war shrine on Thursday provoked harsh criticism from Japan's neighboring countries and has added to already strained diplomatic ties.
The visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo by transport minister Yuichiro Hata and postal privatization minister Mikio Shimoji came just one day after the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) leader Shinzo Abe paid homage at the shrine.
Abe, widely expected to be the nation's next leader should the LDP oust the ruling Democratic Party of Japan in the upcoming general election, drew harsh criticism for his visit yesterday from both China and South Korea, at a time when Japan's relations with the two countries have sunk to an all-time low over territorial disputes.
The latest visits by Hata and Shimoji to the contentious Yasukuni, which enshrines more than 2 million war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals, is likely to further aggrieve Japan's East Asian neighbors, according to observers.
The shrine has been honoring Japan's war dead for more than 200 years, and Class-A war criminals after their convictions at the International Military Tribunal, following Japan's surrender at the end of World War II and their subsequent executions.
For Japan's East Asian neighbors the shrine is a bitter reminder of Japan's brutal militaristic past and recent visits by government officials are widely interpreted as a conscious shift by government leaders towards nationalism, partly to garner public support ahead of critical general elections.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura claimed the latest visits by Japanese ministers were not made in an official capacity and as such bore no political thrust.
"As the ministers made their visit in a private capacity, the government has no further comment," Fujimura told reporters earlier on Thursday.
"The government has long believed that visits made in a private capacity relate to the freedom of personal beliefs, and we shouldn 't interfere with that," he said.
But contrary to Fujimura's remarks, Shimoji said he visited Yasukuni in his official political capacity as secretary general of the People's New Party, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan ( DPJ)'s coalition partner.
Shimoji was also quoted as saying that his visit was unlikely to cause any diplomatic problems with Japan's neighbors.
However, today's pilgrimage to Yasukuni has drawn harsh criticism from South Korea, who along with China also suffered under Japan's militaristic regime and colonial rule during World War II.
South Korean foreign ministry official Cho Tai Young called the visit an irresponsible and insensitive act and urged leaders in Japan to "look squarely at history with a humble attitude."
Similarly, Chinese officials have admonished the visits over the past two days, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei urging Japan to "face the international community in a responsible manner."
Repeated visits to the shrine by both ministers and nonpartisan groups are further straining Japan's bilateral ties with South Korea and China and offhanded remarks made by politicians visiting Yasukuni, like the one made by Shimoji denying his actions have political significance, are adding further fuel to an ever- escalating diplomatic fire.
Abe openly admitting that he was paying tribute and respect to the war dead in an official capacity, a comment far removed from his previous stance of prioritizing and building better relations with Japan's neighbors when he was the nation's leader in 2006, has also fanned the flames of discontent towards Japan.
"I paid a visit as president of the Liberal Democratic Party to show respect to the spirits of the war dead who gave their lives for the country," Abe, hotly tipped to be the nation's next prime minister, said.