Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence, April 8, 2022. (RODRIGO REYES MARIN / POOL PHOTO VIA AP)
TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday sent a ritual offering to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead and several top ruling party leaders visited, prompting South Korea to express "deep disappointment and regret."
The shrine is seen by Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Japan's past military aggression because it includes 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal among the 2.5 million war dead honored there.
Past offerings have provoked angry responses from Japan's Asian neighbors.
Kishida, who also sent an offering in October at the time of a festival at the shrine, has followed the example of previous Japanese leaders by refraining from visiting in person during spring and autumn festivals to avoid angering China and South Korea, and chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno declined to comment.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and current ruling Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Sanae Takaichi did visit, prompting protests from South Korea.
"The government expresses deep disappointment and regret over the fact that Japan's responsible leaders have once again sent offerings to and paid respects at the Yasukuni Shrine which glorifies Japan's history of war of aggression and enshrines war criminals," the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"Our government strongly urges Japan's responsible figures to look direct into their history, and show through action their humble reflection and sincere remorse of its past history."
Kishida, who is viewed as more liberal among lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has expressed the hope of improving ties with South Korea under President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who takes office on May 10.
No Japanese prime minister has visited Yasukuni while in office since Abe in 2013, sparking outrage in South Korea and China and prompting key ally the United States to express "disappointment."
Abe told reporters that visiting the shrine had special resonance this year given Russia's special operation against Ukraine.
"In Ukraine, many brave people are currently fighting and risking their lives to protect their country," he said, adding that he wanted to pay his respects to those who had given their lives for Japan.