TOKYO (AP) -- China and South Korea reacted strongly Friday to visits by three Japanese Cabinet ministers to a Tokyo shrine that honors the war dead including convicted war criminals, although Japan's prime minister stayed away.
Keiji Furuya, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, one of the three ministers who visited Yasukuni Shrine, said it was "only natural as a Japanese" to honor those who had given up their lives for their country.
Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shindo told reporters his visit was a vow to never wage war again, and shrugged off concerns it may set off a diplomatic row.
"If it does, the government should give a clear and good explanation," he told reporters after praying at the shrine. A third official, Administrative Reform Minister Tomomi Inada, visited later Friday.
China lambasted the visits as proof of Tokyo's incorrect understanding of history, calling Yasukuni "a spiritual tool and symbol for the Japanese militarists."
"Sino-Japanese relations can develop in a healthy and stable way only if Japan can face up to and reflect on the history of invasion and make a clear break with militarism," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in an online statement.
In Seoul, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said some Japanese politicians were acting in a way that hurts both South Koreans and Japanese and further pushes the countries' people apart.
In a speech marking South Korea's independence from Japanese colonialism, Park also asked Japanese leaders to act wisely and expressed hopes that next year the countries will move together toward friendlier ties.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not go to the shrine, but sent a gift through an envoy. His visit to Yasukuni in December drew widespread criticism, including from the U.S., Japan's most important ally.
Abe signed the gift as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and not as prime minister, a party official said.
The enshrinement of Class-A war criminals, such as wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, among the 2.5 million dead at Yasukuni Shrine makes the visits a target of condemnation from China and South Korea, which suffered from Japan's aggression and see the shrine as a symbol of brutality.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended the visits as religious freedom, noting that praying for the war dead is natural for any country and that the ministers acted in a private capacity.
Dozens of lawmakers from various parties visited the shrine, wearing dark suits and outfits.
At a ceremony commemorating the end of World War II at a Tokyo hall, attended by thousands of people, Abe said later Friday that the sacrifices of the previous generation brought "peace and prosperity" to Japan.
"We will never forget that," Abe told the crowd, noting that Japan must "humbly face up to history."
Emperor Akihito, whose father surrendered at the end of World War II, also offered prayers at the ceremony on a stage covered with chrysanthemums, flanked by his wife Michiko.
Although extremist nationalists throng Yasukuni, wearing old uniforms and tooting bugle horns, thousands of regular people also go to the shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of the war.
Veteran Shirataka Kuribayashi, 88, was among those lining up to bow and pray for no more wars.
"The memory fades away, and people forget about the war. I think we need to stop that," he said.
Associated Press news assistant Zhao Liang in Beijing, APTV journalists Kaori Hitomi and Emily Wang, writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and researcher Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.
Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama
Follow Mari Yamaguchi at https://twitter.com/mariyamaguchi
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.