By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea summoned Tokyo's ambassador in Seoul on Thursday to protest at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's defense of visits by senior officials and lawmakers to a shrine seen by Japan's neighbors as a symbol of wartime aggression.
China and South Korea chastised Japan after more than 160 lawmakers visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine this week. That followed a symbolic offering made by Abe to the shrine and a visit by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and two other ministers.
Such visits, a regular occurrence during religious festivals, have long angered Asian nations where the scars of Japan's past militarism still run deep.
"We don't understand why Japanese society closes its eyes and covers its ears about pain and damage caused by its past invasion and colonial rule, while it treats honesty and trust as important values," Kim Kyou-hyun, South Korea's vice foreign minister, told the ambassador, according to the ministry.
The recurring flare-ups in tensions between Japan, South Korea and China have been a source of concern for Washington, which is keen to secure cooperation from Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing in reining in reclusive North Korea.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said his agency "did not issue a formal protest to the Japanese embassy," which would have been a highly unusual step between close allies, but he called on Japan and its neighbors to overcome their differences.
"We've stated many times, we hope the countries in the region can work together to resolve their differences in an amicable way, through dialogue," he told reporters.
"This is in the context that, again, we also had other countries like China and South Korea that expressed some concerns," Ventrell added.
Thursday's summons in Seoul came a day after conservative Abe defended the latest visits to Yasukuni at a parliamentary panel in Tokyo.
The shrine honors Japan's war dead, as well as 14 leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal. It is seen by Koreans as a reminder of Japan's brutal colonial rule from 1910-1945.
China, which also suffered under Japanese occupation, also takes offence when Japanese leaders pay their respects at the shrine.
BURDEN OF HISTORY
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Thursday that Tokyo did not want the Yasukuni issue to affect ties with its neighbors.
"Our basic stance is, as I have been saying, our nation has caused a great pain and suffering to many nations, especially people in Asian nations, in the war," he said.
"Japanese governments have accepted these historical facts sincerely and have expressed our deepest remorse and heartfelt apology, and have expressed the condolences for all the victims ... This is the same for the Abe government."
Earlier this week, South Korea's foreign minister cancelled a trip to Tokyo, and Beijing said recent events showed Japanese leaders continued to deny the nation's militaristic past.
Abe, however, was unapologetic.
"It is only natural to honor the spirits of the war dead who gave their lives for the country. Our ministers will not cave in to any threats," Abe told a parliamentary panel on Wednesday. "It is also my job to protect our pride, which rests on history and tradition."
While defending his actions, Abe also said he was open to dialogue with China and others. Tokyo was also discussing a possible trip by defense officials to Beijing to ease tensions.
Japanese media said the delegation could leave as soon as Thursday, but the defense ministry said details were still being worked out.
Tensions have also risen this week in a Sino-Japanese row over disputed islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, after a flotilla carrying Japanese nationalists sailed near the rocky islets and China sent eight surveillance ships into nearby waters.
(Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko in TOKYO and Paul Eckert in WASHINGTON; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Paul Tait and Alex Richardson)