Courting controversy: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, centre,  led by a Shinto priest, visits the  Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on December 26.  The move is likely to anger Asian neighbours China and South Korea.

Courting controversy: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, centre, led by a Shinto priest, visits the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on December 26. The move is likely to anger Asian neighbours China and South Korea. Photo: Reuters

Tokyo:  Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a contentious Tokyo war shrine early Thursday, provoking swift condemnation from China and South Korea, both victims of Japan's wartime aggression.

Wearing formal attire and followed by media helicopters that streamed his visit live on television, Mr Abe led a group of government officials into the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo to pay his respects. The television cameras were not allowed into the inner shrine.

Mr Abe's visit to the shrine, which honours Japan's war dead, including Class A war criminals from the World War II era, was the first by a sitting Japanese head of state since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid his respects there in 2006.

Among those honoured by the shrine, of Japan's native Shinto religion, are several who were executed as war criminals after World War II. Past visits by Japanese politicians have angered China and South Korea, both of which suffered greatly under Japan's empire-building efforts in the early 20th century. Japanese prime ministers had stayed away from the shrine in recent years as the country sought to improve relations with China and South Korea. Mr Abe did not visit the shrine during his first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, but he has since expressed regret.

Speaking to reporters after his brief visit, Mr Abe expressed frustration that the shrine still provoked such controversy. He said that he had paid his respects not just to those who gave their lives serving Japan but to fallen soldiers around the world.

He added that it was normal for any national leader to honour the war dead and that he had prayed for peace.

"Japan must never wage war again," Mr Abe said. "This is my conviction based on severe remorse for the past. It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people."

But his visit came at a tense time. Japan is already involved in a standoff with China over control of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and over a new air defence identification zone announced by China that includes airspace over the disputed islands. It is also embroiled in a dispute with South Korea over separate islets.

Mr Abe is known for his conservative views on Japanese history, and he has questioned some accounts of Japan's wartime conduct, including whether the military forced women across Asia into sexual servitude.

He has also sought to bolster Japan's military standing, reversing a decade of military cuts and adopting a defence plan that calls for the purchase of drones and amphibious assault vehicles to counter China's own rapid military buildup.

China's reaction to Mr Abe's visiting the shrine was swift.

"The Chinese government expresses its strong indignation that Japanese leaders brutally trample the feelings of the Chinese and other Asian peoples victimised in wars," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We solemnly urged the Japanese side to abide by the commitment to reflecting on its history of aggression, taking measures to correct its errors, eliminating its adverse effects and taking concrete actions to win over the trusts of its Asian neighbours and the international community."

Luo Zhaohui, director of the Foreign Ministry's Asian affairs department, wrote on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo: "This is absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people. It will cause great harm to the feelings of the Asian peoples and create a new, major political obstacle on bilateral relationships. Japan must bear the consequences."

South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted unnamed government officials in South Korea who rebuked Mr Abe, calling his visit to the shrine an act that "sought to justify Japan's war of aggression" and that would damage bilateral relations.

New York Times