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Japan lawmakers visit war shrine on eve of Obama trip

TOKYO -- Nearly 150 Japanese lawmakers on Tuesday paid homage at the Yasukuni shrine which honors the nation's war dead, raising the stakes in an already tense region on the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit.

A cross-section of parliamentarians — including at least one cabinet minister — paid their respects at the shrine, which honors those who have fought for Japan including a number of senior military and political figures convicted of war crimes.

China and South Korea see the shrine as a symbol of what they say is Japan's unwillingness to repent for its aggressive warring last century. The United States tries to discourage visits, which it views as unnecessary provocation.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it “deplored” the mass visit as the shrine is a “place that enshrined war crimes that caused a war and destroyed peace.”

“I think it is such an empty gesture to talk about the future with neighboring countries while paying respects to such a place,” ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young said.

Japan's conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stayed away from Yasukuni, having offered a symbolic gift on Monday at the start of the three-day spring festival.

However, the right-leaning minister for internal affairs and communications, Yoshitaka Shindo, was among the worshippers early Tuesday, paying his second visit in 10 days.

“I renew my faith in peace so that such tragedies will never be repeated. This is the belief that I always keep in mind when I come to Yasukuni Shrine,” he said, adding that he was there in a private capacity.

Shindo's grandfather was General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the figure sympathetically depicted by actor Ken Watanabe in Clint Eastwood's “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

The mass visit will inevitably further aggravate strained ties in East Asia, and could irritate the White House, coming the day before Obama arrives on the first leg of a four-nation trip which also includes South Korea.

“Speaking personally, my father is enshrined here,” said Hidehisa Otsuji, an upper-house lawmaker who was at Yasukuni.

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