Shinzo Abe, president of Japan's opposition Liberal Democratic Party and a front runner to be the next prime minister, made a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo yesterday, adding to the strains in Sino-Japanese relations.
Abe, a former prime minister, said he went to Yasukuni in an official capacity.
"As the autumn festival has started, I visited as the president of the Liberal Democratic Party so as to express my respect to the heroic spirits who sacrificed their lives for the country," he said.
Abe's shrine visit triggered fresh outrage on the mainland, already the scene of protests following the Japanese government's purchase of three of the disputed Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea early last month. In Japan, the islands are known as the Senkakus.
A strongly worded commentary by the official Xinhuanet.com yesterday attacked Abe, saying his high-profile "ghost-worshipping" visit was a challenge to the conscience and common sense of human beings and an attempt to shatter the post-war international order.
The visit also triggered an outpouring of angry internet postings on the mainland.
"[Beijing] must do something concrete in response, either through economic means or military ones, or we will be too ashamed to face anyone," one internet user said in a microblog posting.
When asked to comment on the visit, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei called on the Japanese side to stick to the spirit of "learning from history and facing up to the future".
Meanwhile, after meeting Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Executive Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun in Beijing yesterday, US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns reiterated that the US wanted all sides involved in the East China Sea issue to use diplomacy to manage disagreements without coercion or the use of force. He said the United States "does not take a position on the competing sovereignty claims of the parties".
Abe, known for his conservative views on history, has frequently visited Yasukuni, including on August 15 this year - the anniversary of the end of the second world war - but stayed away in 2007 during his short-lived premiership. Stepping down a year later, he said not visiting the shrine during his time in office was "extremely painful".
With 14 convicted class-A war criminals, including former prime minister Hideki Tojo, among those worshipped, any visit by politicians has long been regarded as provocative.