TOKYO - Two Japanese cabinet ministers visited a controversial war shrine in Tokyo Friday in a move likely to anger China and South Korea, which see it as a symbol of Japan's militarist past.
Dozens of other lawmakers are due to make a mass pilgrimage to the shrine later in the day although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is widely expected to stay away as he looks to mend ties with Beijing and Seoul.
The 145-year-old Shinto shrine honours some 2.5 million citizens who died in World War II and other conflicts, including 14 indicted war criminals such as General Hideki Tojo, who authorised the attack on Pearl Harbour, drawing the United States into the war.
Keiji Furuya, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, was the first minister to pay homage at the Yasukuni shrine on Friday - the 69th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.
"It is natural to express my sincere condolences for the souls of those who sacrificed their lives for the country," Furuya told reporters at the shrine.
Soon after Furuya, internal affairs and communications minister Yoshitaka Shindo also visited the site in downtown Tokyo.
Shindo's grandfather was General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the figure sympathetically depicted by actor Ken Watanabe in Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima".
Many ordinary people visit the shrine to pay their respects to family and friends who died in combat.
But visits by Japanese politicians enrage neighbouring nations, which view them as an insult and a painful reminder of Tokyo's aggression in the first half of the 20th century, including a brutal 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula.
On last year's anniversary, some 100 lawmakers as well as three state ministers visited the shrine near the Imperial Palace.
Abe, known for his nationalist views, drew protests himself from China and South Korea when he visited the shrine last December at a time when Japan's ties with the neighbouring countries were severely strained over territorial disputes and differences in historical perceptions.
The visit earned him a diplomatic slap on the wrist from the United States, a close ally, which said it was "disappointed" by the move.
China and Japan have a bloody history and are currently embroiled in a bitter row over islands in the East China Sea, which has clouded Abe's bid to hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a regional meeting in Beijing in November.
Abe and Xi, both nationalists, have not held a bilateral summit since they both came to power more than 18 months ago.
On last year's anniversary, Abe broke with two decades of tradition by omitting any expression of remorse for Tokyo's past aggression in Asia when he spoke at a ceremony attended by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
Japan's hawkish premier has defended the visits to Yasukuni, but key ministers, including Abe's deputy Taro Aso and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, have stayed away.
Since taking power in December 2012, Abe has mostly focused his attention on stoking the country's economy, but he has also started to push for a more robust defence policy.
Last month, Abe's cabinet approved the right to allow its military to go into battle in defence of allies, a major shift for the Pacifist nation that came despite widespread public opposition.