TOKYO (AP) -- Visits by Cabinet ministers and lawmakers to a shrine honoring Japan's war dead, including 14 World War II leaders convicted of atrocities, signal Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's determination to pursue a more nationalist agenda after months of focusing on the economy.
Nearly 170 Japanese lawmakers paid homage at Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday. A day earlier, visits by three Cabinet ministers, said by the government to be unofficial, drew protests from neighbors South Korea and China over actions they view as failures to acknowledge Japan's militaristic past.
China and South Korea -- Japan's No. 1 and No. 3 trading partners, respectively -- bore the brunt of Tokyo's pre-1945 militarist expansion in Asia and routinely criticize visits to the shrine. Almost seven decades after the war ended, it still overshadows relations.
Adding to the discord, Chinese surveillance vessels were patrolling Tuesday near a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by both countries.
China's State Oceanic Administration said Tuesday that its maritime surveillance ships had chased away a group of Japanese ultra-nationalists who visited the area.
The Japanese government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said the intrusion by a record eight Chinese vessels into Japan's territorial waters was "unacceptable" and that Tokyo had lodged formal protests with the Chinese government. The nationalist group that China accused of attempting to land on the islands could not be immediately reached.
Abe told parliament Tuesday that if Chinese citizens were to land on the islands, Japan would forcibly remove them.
"Naturally, we will forcibly expel (the Chinese) if they were to make a landing. I should make that clear," Abe said in response to a question from a fellow lawmaker on his commitment to defending the island.
But he also said Japan's relations with China are among the most important bilateral relations in the world, and their economies are inseparable.
"It is wrong for China to take provocative actions or totally cut ties just because there is a problem," he said. "Our door for dialogue is always open."
Over the weekend, Abe did not visit Yasukuni but instead donated ceremonial ornaments marked "Prime Minister" to the shrine, whose compound has a war museum glorifying Japan's wartime past.
If Abe was attempting to avoid pointed responses from Japan's neighbors by not visiting the shrine himself, he was unsuccessful.
"The way they recognize history and treat the issue of the Yasukuni Shrine is an important criterion, based on which their close neighbors in Asia and the global community will watch and learn what road Japan will take in the future," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young urged "deep soul-searching" by Japan to discover how such visits are seen in neighboring countries.
"Yasukuni Shrine is a place to ... glorify wars," he said.
Several vice ministers and top executives of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party joined Tuesday's group pilgrimage to the shrine. This is one of several times during the year when lawmakers customarily pay their respects.
Among the ministers who visited over the weekend was Taro Aso, a former prime minister now serving as finance minister. He said he usually visits Yasukuni two or three times a year.
"It's nothing new such that it should have an impact on foreign relations," Aso told reporters Tuesday.
Leaders of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan generally refrained from visiting the shrine when the party was in power, from 2009 until late last year.
The shift toward a more conservative agenda under Abe was bound to happen, sooner or later.
Though Abe has focused mostly on economic policy since taking office in December, he has campaigned for revising Japan's U.S.-inspired constitution, which renounced war after the country's defeat in World War II, and for recognizing the country's Self-Defense Forces as a national military. He also favors revising Japan's past apologies for atrocities committed by its Imperial Army before and during World War II. Those aims are outlined in the LDP's platform.
The party holds a strong majority in the lower house of parliament, but needs a robust showing in upper house elections in July to gain the mandate it wants for pushing ahead with other priorities, including constitutional revision. Even if it gains a strong upper house majority, it faces a tough decision by next fall on whether to go ahead with a commitment to raise the sales tax -- a move expected to anger voters and possibly throw the economy back into recession.