Japanese cabinet minister visits Yasukuni Shrine

Japanese Land and Transport Ministedr Yuichiro Hata (L) follows a Shinto priest during a visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine to honour the dead on the 67th anniversary of Japan's surrender from World War II.

TOKYO - Japanese cabinet minister Jin Matsubara on Wednesday visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, seen by neighbouring nations as a symbol of the country's militaristic past.

Matsubara went to the shrine, where 2.5 million war dead - including 14 leading Japanese war criminals from World War II - are honoured on the 67th anniversary of Japan's surrender, an AFP photographer saw.

"This is a private visit to this shrine," the minister told Japanese reporters, according to Jiji Press.

Those enshrined at Yasukuni include General Hideki Tojo, the Japanese prime minister who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor and was convicted of war crimes and hanged by a US-led tribunal.

Matsubara's visit came as Japan's diplomatic relations with South Korea and China become increasingly tense, as territorial rows intertwine with emotional nationalistic sentiment.

South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak last week travelled to disputed but Seoul-controlled islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japan, despite strong calls by Tokyo for him not to.

Matsubara went to the shrine even after Seoul urged him to drop his plan.

Past Yasukuni visits by Japanese ministers have also angered Beijing, with which Tokyo is in a deep dispute over islands in the East China Sea believed to be rich in minerals.

Matsubara holds three ministerial portfolios: chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, consumers affairs minister, and minister in charge of dealing with the issue of Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents.

He is the first minister to openly visit the shrine on August 15 since the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan came to power three years ago, when it ousted the long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Land and transport minister Yuichiro Hata told reporters earlier this month that he also planned to go to Yasukuni on the anniversary, despite Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda asking his cabinet to stay away.

Hata was not seen at the shrine early Wednesday.

Former prime minister and LDP leader Junichiro Koizumi prayed once a year at Yasukuni during his 2001-2006 tenure, enraging China and South Korea.

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