- Associated Press - Thursday, December 26, 2013

TOKYO (AP) — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid his respects Thursday at a shrine honoring Japan’s war dead in a move that drew sharp rebukes from China and South Korea, who warned that the visit celebrates his country’s militaristic past and threatens to further sour already bad relations.

The United States expressed disappointment “that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”

Visits to Yasukuni by Japanese politicians have long been a point of friction with China and South Korea, because the 2.5 million war dead enshrined there include 14 class A war criminals from World War II — national leaders who were either executed or died in prison or during their trials.

Japan colonized Korea and occupied parts of China, often brutally, before and during World War II.

Abe, a nationalist who advocates revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, has always wanted to visit Yasukuni as prime minister, but his visit still surprised some analysts, who thought he might take a pragmatic approach to leadership that focused on reviving the economy and trying to avoid alienating neighbors.

It was the first visit to Yasukuni by a sitting Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi went to mark the end of World War II in 2006.

Abe, wearing a formal black jacket with tails and striped, gray pants, spent about 15 minutes at the Shinto shrine in central Tokyo. TV cameras followed him inside the shrine property, but were not allowed in the inner shrine.

“I prayed to pay respect for the war dead who sacrificed their precious lives and hoped that they rest in peace,” he told waiting reporters afterward.

Abe said criticism that visits to Yasukuni are an act of worshipping war criminals is 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.”

He said he believes Japan must never wage war again: “This is my conviction, based on the severe remorse for the past.”

His statements failed to assuage China and South Korea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, in a statement posted on the ministry’s website, said “we strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader’s acts.”

He called visits to Yasukuni “an effort to glorify the Japanese militaristic history of external invasion and colonial rule … and to challenge the outcome of World War II.”

He added that “the effort to go against the historical trend is sure to cause great vigilance and strong worries among Asian neighbors and the international community over the direction of Japan’s future development.”

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