Two Japanese cabinet ministers visited a controversial war shrine Wednesday on the anniversary of Tokyo's World War II surrender, a move set to heighten South Korean anger over an island dispute.
The visits are also likely to provoke outrage in China, as pro-Beijing activists approach a different set of islands that are the focus of a simmering territorial spat with Tokyo.
Jin Matsubara, who handles the issue of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea, and land minister Yuichiro Hata made separate visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 2.5 million war dead -- including 14 leading war criminals from World War II.
Visits to the shrine by government ministers spark outrage in China and on the Korean peninsula, where many feel Japan has failed to atone for its brutal expansionist adventurism in the first half of the 20th century.
The pilgrimages were the first on the sensitive anniversary by any government minister since the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009.
All three prime ministers since then have asked their cabinets to stay away.
Matsubara, dressed in a western-style business suit, said he had gone to the shrine "in a personal capacity" and had used his visit to "remember ancestors who established the foundations of the prosperity of present-day Japan".
Those enshrined at Yasukuni include General Hideki Tojo, the Japanese prime minister who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor and was convicted of war crimes and hanged by a US-led tribunal.
Seoul had on Tuesday urged the ministers not to go to Yasukuni on the day it marks as Liberation Day, commemorating the end of Japan's often harsh colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910-45.
Japan's diplomatic relations with South Korea and China are becoming increasingly tense as territorial rows intertwine with emotional nationalistic sentiment.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak last week travelled to Seoul-controlled islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japan, despite calls by Tokyo for him not to do so.
Tokyo recalled its ambassador to Seoul in protest and made noises about cancelling planned summits.
But Lee was undeterred and said Tuesday that Japan's Emperor Akihito would have to sincerely apologise for past excesses should he wish to visit South Korea.
Separately, Tokyo is in a profound dispute with Beijing over islands in an area of the East China Sea believed to be rich in mineral deposits.
A group of pro-China activists from Hong Kong and Macau were expected to sail close to the disputed islands -- known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese -- on Wednesday in a bid to promote their claim.
The former Japanese prime minister and leader of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party Junichiro Koizumi prayed once a year at Yasukuni during his 2001-2006 tenure, enraging China and South Korea.