Second Japanese minister visits controversial war shrine

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Shinto priests walk to the main shrine as they administer a Shinto rite "Kiyoharai" on the first day of the four-day autumn festival at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on October 17, 2013

A second Japanese cabinet minister visited a controversial war shrine on Sunday but said he had no intention of provoking neighbouring countries, which see it as a painful reminder of Japan's imperialist past.

Keiji Furuya, who is minister in charge of issues related to North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals, visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo early in the morning on the final day of an autumn festival, an aide said.

About 160 members of parliament -- approximately 20 percent of the nation's lawmakers -- paid tribute at the shrine on Friday, including Yoshitaka Shindo, the minister overseeing internal affairs and communications, whose visit drew a rebuke from China.

Yasukuni, which honours about 2.5 million war dead, is a flashpoint in relations between Japan and its Asian neighbours -- particularly China and South Korea -- with disagreements about history badly colouring relations.

The shrine is controversial because of the inclusion of 14 convicted top war criminals from the World War II era.

"It is a duty for parliamentarians... to extend his or her heartfelt condolences to those who devoted their life to their own country and to solemnly renew the vows for eternal peace," Furuya said in a statement issued after his brief visit in rainy weather.

He said it was natural for a Japanese citizen to visit the shrine, adding he had previously made pilgrimages to mark spring and autumn festivals as well as the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, which falls on August 15.

"I have no intention to provoke our neighbouring countries in the first place," Furuya said.

"Moreover, how a nation pays its respect to the souls of the war dead who devoted his or her life to their country is purely a domestic matter which its citizens should address."

He blamed "some excessive media coverage" of visits to Yasukuni for being detrimental to Japan's national interests.

He argued the shrine was not meant to "glorify" war.

"Rather, it is a place which many Japanese citizens have visited and maintained... to console the soul of their kin and friends who devoted their life to the country," he added.

Speaking after his visit on Friday, Shindo played down the potential for diplomatic fallout but Beijing said it was a bid to "whitewash" past Japanese aggression and Tokyo's envoy was summoned to the foreign ministry as China lodged a protest.

In Seoul a foreign ministry official bemoaned the shrine's role as one that "justifies the history of Japan's aggression".

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week donated a symbolic gift to the shrine, taken as a sign that he would not be there in person.

Abe, who was also prime minister from 2006 to 2007, has stayed away from Yasukuni since he took office in December, although he visited last year when he was in opposition.

Reports said Abe's younger brother, Senior Vice Foreign Minister Nobuo Kishi, visited the shrine Saturday.