A Japanese cabinet minister yesterday visited a Tokyo war shrine that honours executed war criminals in a move that could reignite tensions with Japan's neighbours ahead of US President Barack Obama's Asian tour.
China and South Korea immediately criticised the trip, with Beijing condemning the "mistaken attitude of the current Japanese cabinet towards history".
Television footage showed Yoshitaka Shindo, minister for internal affairs and communications, paying homage yesterday morning at the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan's war dead including several high-level officials executed for war crimes after the second world war.
Shindo insisted that it was a "private matter". Japan's foreign ministry said Shindo's grandfather had fought in the war, and that he had no intention of hurting the feelings of people in China or South Korea.
But South Korea called the visit a challenge to its neighbours.
"The Japanese cabinet member's visit … made again in defiance of the international worries, constitutes a head-on challenge to neighbouring countries," its foreign ministry said.
China had lodged solemn representations and protests with Japan, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
Shindo's visit came as a bit of a surprise because conservative lawmakers usually make their visits to the shrine during one of several annual festivals.
But this year's April 21-23 spring festival partially overlaps with Obama's trip to Japan, who will be in the country on April 23 and 24.
The strained ties between Tokyo and Seoul, the two key US allies in Asia, are of deep concern for Washington.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Japan last week on an Asian tour seen as laying the groundwork for Obama's visit.
Professor Niu Zhongjun, of the China Foreign Affairs University, said Shindo's visit to the shrine was an individual act to gain political capital, and would not have any significant impact on relations between China and Japan.
Earlier yesterday, three Chinese government ships entered the territorial waters around the East China Sea islands, called the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China, for several hours, according to the Japanese coastguard.
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan, Associated Press