Two Japanese cabinet ministers visited a controversial shrine honoring the war dead on the 67 th anniversary marking the end of World War II, inflaming South Korea at a time of escalating tensions between the two countries.
The visits by National Public Safety Commission Jin Matsubara and Transport Minister Yuichiro Hata were the first by high-ranking officials since the ruling Democratic Party of Japan came to power three years ago.
The Yasukuni shrine, located in central Tokyo, honors more than 2 million Japanese who died in the war, but triggers resentment because it includes 14 convicted war criminals who committed atrocities across the region. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has opposed any visits to the shrine, but both Matsubara and Hata called their visits a "private" one.
"I paid respect to those who paved the way for Japan's prosperity today," Matsubara told reporters.
In Seoul, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak called on Japan to face up to history, saying "Chain links tangled in the history of Korea-Japan relations are hampering the common march toward a better tomorrow in Northeast Asia."
The Yasukuni shrine has long been a source of tension between the two countries, but the visits today came amid a diplomatic standoff that began last week after Lee visited the disputed Takeshima islands known as "Dokdo" in Korean, despite protests from Tokyo. That immediately prompted Japan to withdraw its ambassador from Seoul.
The controversy spilled out into the Olympics in London, after a South Korean soccer player was photographed holding a sign that read "Dokdo is our land" following the 2-0 win over Japan in the bronze medal match. Earlier this week, activists began a 140-plus mile swim to the islands, completing the trip Wednesday afternoon.
The islets located in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, sit halfway between the two countries, and are guarded by a small South Korean police detachment. The rocks are controlled by South Korea, but Japan also claims the territory.
Critics have suggested that Lee made the controversial trip to boost sagging approval ratings back home, with elections looming in December. He stepped up the rhetoric Tuesday, calling on Japanese emperor Akihito to apologize for his country's aggressions, and pressing Tokyo to compensate Korean "comfort women" who were forced into prostitution during Japan's colonial rule.
"It was a breach of women's rights committed during wartime as well as a violation of universal human rights and historic justice," he said at an event marking Korea's independence from Japan. "We urge the Japanese Government to take responsible measures in this regard."
At a ceremony marking the end of the war, Noda expressed "profound remorse" for Japan causing "tremendous damage and suffering," and vowed Japan would never go to war again.
"We deeply reflect upon [that] and express our deepest condolences to the victims and their families," he said.
Tokyo is locked in other territorial disputes.
The Japanese Coast Guard arrested five Hong Kong activists today, after they successfully landed on the shores of Senkaku islands. The uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as Diaoyu in China, are controlled by Japan but China has claimed them as their territory.