TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a shrine on Thursday that is seen by critics as a symbol of Tokyo's wartime aggression, infuriating China and South Korea and prompting concern from the United States about deteriorating ties between the North Asian neighbors.
China and South Korea have repeatedly expressed anger in the past over Japanese politicians' visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal after World War Two are honored along with those who died in battle.
The two countries have been especially touchy about visits to the shrine by serving Japanese prime ministers, and Abe is the first leader in office to pay homage at Yasukuni in the past seven years.
Business ties between China and Japan, the world's second- and third-largest economies, have improved after a downturn sparked by a flare-up last year in a row over tiny East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but also claimed by China.
But worries are growing that an unintended incident between Japanese and Chinese aircraft and ships playing cat-and-mouse near the disputed isles could escalate into a military clash.
Abe, a conservative who took office for a second term exactly one year ago, said he did not intend to hurt feelings in neighboring nations.
"There is criticism based on the misconception that this is an act to worship war criminals, but I visited Yasukuni Shrine to report to the souls of the war dead on the progress made this year and to convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war," he told reporters after the visit.
Television carried live video of his motorcade making its way to the shrine, built in 1896 by Emperor Meiji to enshrine war dead. Yasukuni played a key role in the wartime state Shinto religion which mobilized the population to fight in the name of a divine emperor.
Abe, dressed in a morning suit and a silver tie, bowed at the shrine before following a Shinto priest into an inner sanctum.
Stressing that it was natural for a nation's leader to pay respect to those who died for their country, Abe said he shared the view of past Japanese leaders that ties with China and South Korea were important and that to make them firm was in Japan's national interests – and said that he would like to explain that if given the opportunity.