POSTED: 10:33 p.m. HST, Apr 21, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 10:36 p.m. HST, Apr 21, 2013
TOKYO » The Japanese government said Monday that donations made by the prime minister to a controversial war shrine and visits by three Cabinet ministers were done in an unofficial capacity, while South Korea expressed "deep concern" over their actions.
The Yasukuni Shrine honors Japanese wartime leaders convicted of war crimes among 2.5 million Japanese killed in fighting during World War II. The shrine compound has a war museum that glorifies Japan's wartime past, and the site is a focus of nationalist pride among Japanese conservatives and right-wingers.
But visits to the shrine by political leaders are routinely criticized by South Korea, as well as China and North Korea, which bore the brunt of Japan's pre-1945 militarist march through Asia. The visits are regarded as evidence that Japan's leaders do not acknowledge their country's responsibility for its colonialist past.
Top Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said that Abe didn't visit the Yasukuni Shrine but donated religious ornaments marking the shrine's spring festival with the title "prime minister" on it. The finance minister and two other Cabinet ministers prayed at the shrine over the weekend.
"My understanding is that the three ministers paid visits to the shrine in their private capacity," Suga told a news conference. "There is no government comment to their shrine visits as private citizens."
But at least one Cabinet minister, National Public Safety Commission chief Keiji Furuya, told reporters that he prayed as state minister during his visit Sunday but privately paid his donation money.
"As a national lawmaker, it is only natural to offer prayers to the sacred spirits who sacrificed their lives for the country," Furuya said.
Suga acknowledged reports that South Korea cancelled foreign ministerial talks but said the talks for later this month were at planning stage and weren't official.
In Seoul, a Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed "deep concern and regret" over Abe and other Cabinet members' actions, calling Yasukuni a place "glorifies Japan's wars of aggression that caused huge losses and pain to the peoples of neighboring countries."
South Korea "once again strongly urges the Japanese government to immediately stop its retrograde behavior which ignores history" and take responsible measures to restore confidence among neighboring countries, spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters.
The weekend visits came amid increased tension between Northeast Asia's political giants. Japan is at odds with South Koreaover an island group in the Sea of Japan that Seoul has controlled since the 1950s, and is increasingly at odds with China over a group of small islands in the East China Sea that both countries claim.
Suga said Monday that the shrine visits and donations were private and shouldn't affect diplomacy.
"Each country has its own stance on different issues. We should not let these things affect diplomatic relations," Suga said.
Abe last visited the shrine in October, when he was opposition leader.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.