Japan Cabinet minister visits war shrine

MARI YAMAGUCHI

TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese Cabinet minister on Saturday visited a Tokyo war shrine that honors the dead including executed war criminals in a move that could reignite tensions with Japan's neighbors ahead of President Barack Obama's Asia tour.

Internal Minister Yoshitaka Shindo prayed at the Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen as a symbol of militarism and is a flashpoint between Japan and neighbors China and South Korea. They see repeated Yasukuni visits by Japanese leaders as lack of remorse over wartime history.

But Shindo said he visited in his private capacity to pray for the soldiers who died in the battle of Iwo Jima, one of the most iconic battles of World War II.

"I renewed my commitment to never cause such a tragedy as I prayed for peace before the people who lost their lives in the war," Shindo told reporters after his prayer, wearing a formal dark suit. "That's what I do every time I visit the shrine."

Obama will visit Japan in late April as part of his Asian tour that also includes South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the shrine in December has worsened ties with South Korea and China. Abe's past remarks suggesting his revisionist views about Japan's wartime history, and his national security policy plans aiming to give Japan bigger international defense roles are also prompting caution from the neighbors.

Obama in late March helped to bring together Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye to sit down for a face-to-face meeting for the first time since they took office more than a year ago. The absence of such a meeting between the leaders of key U.S. allies in Asia was a deep concern for Washington.

Shindo is a grandson of a famous Imperial Army general, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who served as commander on Iwo Jima in the final days of the battle there.

The 1945 battle claimed 6,821 American and 21,570 Japanese lives. About 12,000 Japanese and 218 Americans are still classified as missing in action.