Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga sent an offering and three members of his Cabinet paid visits to the war-linked Yasukuni shrine on Sunday as Japan marked the 76th anniversary of the end of World War II, sparking sharp criticism from neighboring countries.
Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, education minister Koichi Hagiuda and World Expo minister Shinji Inoue separately went to the Shinto shrine in central Tokyo, which honors convicted war criminals along with millions of war dead.
Suga sent an offering out of his own pocket under the title of leader of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, having laid flowers at the nearby Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery before giving a speech at a memorial ceremony.
No sitting prime minister has gone to the shrine since Shinzo Abe in December 2013, a trip that strained relations with China and South Korea and prompted the United States to say it was "disappointed" by the move.
Both Koizumi and Hagiuda, the minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, visited Yasukuni last year on Aug. 15, the day the late Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender to the Allied forces, becoming the first ministers to do so since 2016.
Abe also made a trip to the shrine on Sunday, telling reporters he "paid respects to those who gave their lives for our country." Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, Abe's younger brother, and economic and fiscal policy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura visited on Friday.
Suga's offering and the visits by the Cabinet members drew a backlash from China and South Korea, which suffered at the hands of Japan in the lead-up to and during the war.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing voiced "strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition" toward Tokyo, calling Yasukuni "a spiritual tool and symbol of the Japanese militarism's war of aggression."
"What some Japanese political figures have done on the issue of the Yasukuni shrine affronts historical justice and seriously hurts the feelings of people in the victimized Asian countries, including China," she said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the South Korean Foreign Ministry expressed "deep disappointment and regret," urging Japanese leaders to humbly reflect on history.
Established in 1869 to commemorate those that gave their lives for Japan, Yasukuni in 1978 added wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo and other convicted war criminals to the more than 2.4 million war dead enshrined there.
LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura and former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada were among the other visitors, while a cross-party group of lawmakers who go to the shrine together on special occasions did not do so on the World War II anniversary for the second consecutive year due to COVID-19 concerns.