A record 168 lawmakers visited war-related Yasukuni Shrine on April 23 following recent trips by three Cabinet ministers that touched off strong criticism from China and South Korea.
The visits come as ties with both neighboring countries are under severe strain over territorial disputes. In an apparently related development, eight Chinese maritime surveillance ships entered Japanese territorial waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
It was the largest single encroachment since the uninhabited islands, which are also claimed by China, came under state ownership last September, the Japan Coast Guard said.
The lawmakers belong to a multipartisan group that promotes visits to the shrine that memorializes Japan's war dead as well as 14 Class-A war criminals.
They said it was the largest group to visit since 1987 when tallies were first kept on the number of lawmakers to visit the shrine.
No Cabinet ministers were in the group, but among the senior government officials who attended were Shunichi Yamaguchi, senior vice finance minister; Yoshito Kajiya, senior vice farm minister; and Seiichi Eto, special adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Among other lawmakers who visited the shrine were Sanae Takaichi, the policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party; Takeshi Maeda of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan; Takeo Hiranuma of the Japan Restoration Party; and Katsumasa Suzuki of the People's Life Party.
Takaichi told reporters, "It is absolutely wrong if this becomes a diplomatic issue."
Last spring, only 81 lawmakers visited Yasukuni Shrine.
In recent days, 65 individuals visited the shrine on behalf of Diet members.
Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers who earlier visited Yasukuni said their decision to pay homage at the shrine should not trigger diplomatic controversy.
Finance Minister Taro Aso, who visited the shrine on April 21, said, "There will not be much effect on diplomacy."
Keiji Furuya, the state minister in charge of the abductions issue, said, "It is the duty of lawmakers to pay respect in memory of the war dead."
Yoshitaka Shindo, minister of internal affairs and communications, who visited on April 20 said, "I do not believe the private act of an individual will have an effect on neighboring nations."
Meanwhile, media in China and South Korea carried the news about the lawmakers' group visiting Yasukuni and described the move as a rightward tilt in Japanese political circles that would adversely affect bilateral relations.
CHINESE SHIPS IN JAPANESE TERRITORIAL WATERS
The Japan Coast Guard said April 23 that eight Chinese maritime surveillance ships entered territorial waters off the coast of Uotsurishima island, which is part of the Senkaku Islands.
Cutters from the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters demanded that the Chinese ships leave the territorial waters.
Until now, the largest number of Chinese ships to enter territorial waters at one time was six. That incident occurred last Sept. 14.
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