Defying Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, some Cabinet members marked the 49th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II on Monday by visiting a shrine where war dead, including war criminals, are worshiped as deities.
The ministers ignored Murayama's request to stay away from Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine. But they were certain to aggravate a debate over Japanese officials' ambivalent attitudes toward the war.Already this year, two Cabinet members have resigned over remarks downplaying Japan's responsibility for war crimes.
In the latest case, Environmental Agency head Shin Sakurai announced his resignation Sunday after his comments that Japan's Asian neighbors benefited from occupation drew protests from China and South Korea.
Murayama, whose Socialist Party is ardently pacifist, urged Japanese to confront their country's militaristic past.
"The war brought tragic sacrifices beyond description to the people in Asia and many other people in the world," he said at a Tokyo assembly hall Monday.
"We must tell the story of war's misery and sacrifice to subsequent generations and search our souls over our own history," he said.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, flanked by a giant bank of white and yellow chrysanthemums, offered prayers for the dead at the ceremony.
There is a recurring pattern of ambivalence among officials here about the war.
On the one hand, some leaders - including Murayama and his predecessor, Morihiro Hosokawa - have expressed deep regret over the brutal Japanese occupation of its Asian neighbors.
On the other hand, a small but vocal minority believes Japan's wartime cause was just and that it has nothing to apologize for, although the war killed 3 million Japanese and 17 million other Asians.