TOKYO -- Tensions between Japan and its Asian neighbors rose on Tuesday when a large group of Japanese lawmakers paid a symbolically charged visit to a Tokyo war shrine, while Chinese paramilitary ships and a flotilla of boats carrying Japanese nationalists appeared to converge on disputed islands.
The group of 168 mostly low-ranking conservative lawmakers visited the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo in what local news media described as the largest mass visit by Parliament members in recent memory. The shrine of the indigenous Shinto religion honors Japan's war dead, including several who were executed as war criminals after World War II. This has made Yasukuni, and the political leaders who visit it, a target of criticism by China and South Korea, which suffered under Japan's early 20th-century empire building.
Last year, a group of 81 lawmakers visited the shrine during the same season, when Yasukuni celebrates a three-day spring festival.
This year's mass visit comes at a time when Japan's relations with both those neighboring countries have frayed because of disputes over territory and history.
The shrine is viewed by many in China and South Korea as a symbol of how Japan remains unrepentant for its brutal wartime expansion across Asia. For many Japanese nationalists, visits to the shrine appear have become a way of standing up to what they see as the increasingly insistent demands of China, which has usurped their country as the dominant power in Asia.
Analysts said the size of the visit was partly a byproduct of December's landslide election victory by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which installed a hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and an increased number of rightists in Parliament. But they also called it the latest example of how Japanese ultraconservatives have become more vocal in recent years, amid growing unease in Japan over China's rising power and its increasingly forceful stance on their long-simmering dispute over the contested islands.
On Tuesday, that dispute appeared to heat up even further when the Japanese Coast Guard reported that eight Chinese patrol ships had entered waters near the islands, the largest number to appear at one time since the dispute flared up last summer. The Coast Guard said the Chinese ships converged from several different directions into waters near the uninhabited islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in Chinese.
The Chinese ships appeared at the same time as 10 boats carrying members of a Japanese fringe ultranationalist group also arrived off the islands. The boats were followed by Japanese Coast Guard ships apparently seeking to ensure that they did not attempt a landing, as some nationalists did last summer.
Those landings, and the decision in September by the Japanese government to buy three of the islands from their private owner, set off violent street demonstrations in China. Accusing Japan of disrupting the hazy status quo that had prevailed, China has sent armed ships from various coast guard-like civilian agencies on an almost daily basis into or near waters around the islands, in an apparent challenge to Japanese control.
On Tuesday, the Japanese Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to lodge a formal protest over the latest intrusions, which the top Japanese government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, called "unacceptable."
Mr. Suga told reporters that while he did not know why China had sent the ships, he did not think they were meant to protest an earlier round of visits to Yasukuni over the weekend by leading members of Mr. Abe's government. On Monday, the Chinese government criticized those visits, and the South Korean foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, also canceled a trip to Japan.
There was no immediate response by China or South Korea to Tuesday's visit by the large group of lawmakers. The leader of the group, which includes members of the governing Liberal Democrats as well as opposition lawmakers, said they had the right to honor Japan's war dead without causing an international incident.
"It is common in any country that a parliamentarian offers prayers for the souls of the departed war heroes who gave their lives in defense of their country," the leader, Hidehisa Otsuji, a Liberal Democratic lawmaker, told reporters after praying at the shrine. "The angry reactions are hard to comprehend."
Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Hong Kong.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.