By Ju-min Park
TOKYO (Reuters) -Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi visited Yasukuni shrine on Friday, according to local media, paying his respects at the shrine for war dead that is seen by neighbouring countries as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
Footage from broadcaster TV Asahi showed Kishi at the Tokyo shrine, the first visit by a defence minister since 2016 and two days before the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War Two.
Nearly eight decades after the end of the war, Yasukuni remains a potent symbol of the wartime legacy in East Asia and a flashpoint for tension with China and both Koreas. Among those honoured at the shrine are 14 World War Two leaders convicted as “Class A” war criminals by an Allied tribunal in 1948.
Many Japanese pay respects to relatives at the shrine and conservatives say leaders should be able to commemorate the war dead. Chinese and Koreans, however, resent the honours accorded to the war criminals.
Kishi told reporters his visit was to “pay respects and condolences to those who fell dead during the war for the nation”.
Later on Friday, the South Korean foreign ministry said it summoned Naoki Kumagai, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to protest his visit, calling it “beyond deplorable.”
“We express regret and grave concerns that Japan’s defence minister has paid respects to Yasukuni shrine, despite the Korean government having continuously stressed the need to create a new, future-oriented, Korea-Japan relationship,” South Korea’s defence ministry said in a statement.
The relations between Seoul and Tokyo have remained at low ebbs for years over issues related to Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula.
Kishi is the brother of former prime minister Shinzo Abe whose visit to the shrine in December 2013 sparked outrage in Beijing and Seoul and an expression of “disappointment” from the United States.
Abe did not go again as prime minister, sending ritual offerings instead.
Asked about potential protests from China or South Korea following his visit, Kishi said it was “natural” in any country to pay respects to citizens who died in the war.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will not visit the shrine this year, and instead send offerings, Jiji Press reported.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by David Dolan and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)