Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a shrine yesterday that honours Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals, infuriating China and South Korea and prompting a rare expression of concern from the US about deteriorating ties between the East Asian neighbours.
China's Foreign Ministry called the visit to the Yasukuni Shrine a "brazen" act and later summoned Japan's ambassador to Beijing to express "strong opposition" to the visit.
"Japan must bear full responsibility for the serious political consequences," Foreign Minister Wang Yi was quoted as telling the Japanese ambassador.
A Xinhua commentary said: "Choosing a sensitive time to visit a highly controversial and notorious place, Abe knows perfectly what he is doing and the consequences. Instead of a pledge against war, as Abe has claimed, the visit is a calculated provocation to stoke further tension."
South Korea called Abe's visit "anachronistic behaviour".
"We can't help deploring and expressing anger at the prime minister's visit," Seoul's culture minister Yoo Jin-ryong said.
Television carried live video of Abe's motorcade making its way to the shrine, which honours Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including 14 class-A war criminals from the second world war. Abe bowed before following a Shinto priest into an inner sanctum.
A conservative who took office for a second term one year ago, Abe said criticism that visits to Yasukuni were an act of worshipping war criminals was based on a misunderstanding.
"Unfortunately, a Yasukuni visit has largely turned into a political and diplomatic issue," he said. "It is not my intention to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people."
Watch: Japan PM Abe visits Yasukuni war shrine
The US embassy in Tokyo said it was "disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions". It said the US "hopes that both Japan and its neighbours will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past".
The head of Abe's coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito - which had urged him not to make the pilgrimage - called the visit regrettable.
The Japanese embassy in Beijing warned its nationals to stay away from demonstrations and not congregate in big groups.
A meeting between Vice-Premier Liu Yandong and Japanese lawmakers scheduled for yesterday in Beijing was cancelled. But Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the visit was a personal matter.
Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse