A group of Japanese lawmakers has visited a controversial war shrine seen by many as a symbol of Tokyo's pre-war colonial aggression.
A total of 168 members of parliament on Tuesday visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. The site honors Japan's 2.5 million dead from World War II, including some convicted war criminals.
The annual visit comes days after three Japanese cabinet members prayed at the shrine, prompting condemnations from South Korea and China.
The site is a focus of nationalist pride for many Japanese conservatives. But, many Koreans and Chinese see it as a symbol of Japan's colonial aggression in their countries during the first half of the 20th century.
South Korean foreign ministry spokesperson Cho Tai-young denounced the visit during a regular press briefing Tuesday.
"Yasukuni Shrine is the place where war criminals are enshrined and it beautifies a war. They should have time to reflect on themselves and should think about what impression it gives to people in the related country and what people are thinking about it."
South Korea's top diplomat had already cancelled a trip to Tokyo after last week's visit by the Japanese cabinet members. Seoul said Monday that Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se had planned to outline the direction of bilateral relations with Japan before the trip was cancelled.
China also blasted Tokyo over the trips. A foreign ministry spokesperson said the visits to the shrine are an attempt to "deny Japan's history of aggression."
But Hidehisa Otsuji, a Japanese lawmaker who helps organize the shrine visits, insists that other nations should not be offended by those who wish to honor Japan's war dead.
"As a national lawmaker, in any country, it is only natural to offer prayers to the sacred spirits who sacrificed their lives for the country. Therefore, I have difficulties understanding the opposition from other nations."
The trips represent a regular challenge to Japan's already complicated relationships with South Korea and China.
Tokyo-Beijing ties have dropped to their lowest point in years because of a recent flare-up in a long-standing dispute about a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Separately, South Korea and Japan are engaged in a dispute about a Seoul-controlled island group in the Sea of Japan.