TOKYO (AP) — Three Japanese Cabinet ministers on Thursday visited a Tokyo shrine that honors the country's war dead, including convicted war criminals, drawing a rebuke from China just a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping met in a bid to smooth ties.
"I offered my sincere appreciation for the people who fought and sacrificed their lives for the sake of their country," Eriko Yamatani, the disaster management minister, told reporters.
She visited Yasukuni Shrine along with Haruko Arimura, in charge of promoting women's empowerment, and Sanae Takaichi, the internal affairs minister, a day after more than 100 lawmakers prayed there.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei called the visits a "wrong attitude to history." Both China and South Korea, victims of Japan's wartime aggression and colonial conquest, have called on Tokyo to atone for its militaristic past.
"I need to stress that the China-Japan relations can only advance in a healthy and stable way if Japan can face up to and reflect on the history of aggression and make a clean break from militarism," Hong said.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the ministers' visits to Yasukuni were based on their personal beliefs and should not affect Japanese relations with China. He brushed off media speculation that he had ordered the three women to delay their shrine visits until after Abe and Xi met.
Suga praised Wednesday's Abe-Xi talks as "very meaningful" and expressed hope that a positive atmosphere between the two countries could eventually lead to a trilateral meeting including South Korea.
Abe on Tuesday sent religious offerings rather than visiting the shrine, presumably seeking to avoid controversy before the Xi meeting and a state visit next week to the U.S.
Xi urged Abe during their meeting in Indonesia to better handle Japan's relationships with its Asian neighbors and show a better attitude toward history, Chinese state media said. Abe expressed his desire to improve relations, but in a speech to an Asian-African summit did not repeat an apology for Japan's past "colonial rule and aggression" made by his predecessors.
His remarks suggest he is likely to avoid making an explicit apology in a key statement he plans to issue on Aug. 15 to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.
"I hope Abe truly acknowledges and regrets Japan's past mistakes and resolves the problem before we all die," said Kim Bok-tong, 88, a South Korean woman who was a sex slave in Japanese military brothels during the war.
She also appealed to the U.S. government "to correct Abe's actions and not support him. That's what America should be doing to its good friend."
Associated Press writer Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo and news assistant Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.