Tokyo: Nearly 170 lawmakers visited a controversial war shrine seen as potent symbol of Japan`s imperialist past on Tuesday, stoking regional tensions as eight Chinese vessels sailed into disputed waters.
The annual trip to the Yasukuni shrine, which usually draws a far smaller number of legislators, has riled neighbours China and South Korea, which lodged protests after several Japanese cabinet members visited at the weekend.
A total of 168 parliamentarians visited the site in central Tokyo on Tuesday morning according to upper house member of parliament Toshiei Mizuochi.
The shrine honours 2.5 million war dead, including 14 leading war criminals enshrined there, but is seen by Japan`s Asian neighbours as a symbol of its wartime aggression.
The visit came a day after South Korea shelved a proposed trip by Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se to Tokyo in protest at trips by Japanese cabinet ministers to the shrine.
Beijing also protested against the weekend visits on Monday, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying telling reporters that Japan must atone for its past behaviour.
"Only by facing up to and repenting for its history of aggression can Japan create the future, and truly develop friendly and cooperative relations with its neighbours," Hua said.
But Japan`s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga brushed off anger over the shrine visits, saying on Tuesday it was a personal matter for lawmakers.
"A visit to the Yasukuni is the matter of beliefs, and Japan ensures freedom of faith," he said.
"Therefore, the government should not interfere with visits if they are made by cabinet members or by parliament members."
Meanwhile, Tokyo said it had summoned the Chinese ambassador in protest over a flotilla of Chinese government ships that entered territorial waters near a disputed island chain.
Japan`s foreign ministry said it had called in the envoy after eight Chinese vessels entered waters near the Senkaku chain of islands, the most in a single day since Tokyo nationalised part of the archipelago in September.
The maritime surveillance ships entered the 12-nautical-mile zone off the islands, which China calls Diaoyu, around 8:00 am (2300 GMT Monday), the Japan Coast Guard said in a statement.
State-owned Chinese ships have frequently spent time around the five disputed islands, also claimed by Taiwan, in recent months.
"It is extremely deplorable and unacceptable that Chinese government ships are repeatedly entering Japanese territorial waters. We have made a firm protest against China both in Beijing and Tokyo," said Suga, the government`s top spokesman.
A group of Japanese nationalists said it had sent nine ships to the area around the islands, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are believed to harbour vast natural resources below their seabed.
In a separate territorial row, relations between Tokyo and Seoul have been strained by a dispute over a Seoul-controlled chain of islets in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
Japan`s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Keiji Furuya, the chief of the National Public Safety Commission, separately visited the Yasukuni shrine on Sunday.
Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo also visited at the weekend.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not make a pilgrimage but paid for equipment made of wood and fabric -- which bears his name and title -- which is used to decorate an altar.