Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a controversial shrine to World War II dead, including 14 convicted war criminals, ignoring U.S. advice against gestures bound to strain already tense relations with neighbors China and South Korea.
Abe told Japanese news media the visit was intended "to report the progress of the first year of my administration and convey my resolve to build an era in which the people will never again suffer the ravages of war."
But the visit drew immediate rebuke from Beijing and Seoul, where officials fear Japan's nationalist leader is steering his country back to the militarism of the war years and those preceding it.
China's Foreign Ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador in Beijing to formally protest Abe's visit to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006.
The visit "has created major new political obstacles for already strained Sino-Japanese relations, and China won't ever tolerate it," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a statement.
Relations between the two Asian economic giants have been increasingly tense since Japan's purchase last year of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that Tokyo claims as the Senkakus and Beijing as the Diaoyus. China last month retaliated by pronouncing an air defense identification zone over the disputed islands and demanding that any aircraft overflying the region inform Beijing authorities of their flight plans.
South Korean Culture Minister Yoo Jin Ryong deplored Abe's visit to the shrine. During a visit to Japan in October, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel advised Abe to avoid ratcheting up tension by visiting the Yasukuni shrine, the Japan Times said in its article on Thursday's visit.
"The United States is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors," the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said in a statement that first described Japan as "a valued ally and friend."