Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday risked inflaming regional tensions by visiting the Yasukuni shrine – a Second World War memorial that honours Japanese civilians and wartime leaders, but also includes 14 class-A war criminals – bringing strong condemnations from China and South Korea, countries which view the shrine as a symbol of atrocities committed during Japanese occupation.

Mr. Abe, who became the first leader to visit the controversial shrine since 2006, defended the move, saying the purpose was not to pay “homage to war criminals” but to “renew the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again.”

The Japanese leader would have, nonetheless, been all too aware of how the provocative gesture would have been perceived by Japan’s neighbours, who have long hit out at official visits to the shrine as it holds the remains of the war criminals responsible for atrocities perpetrated during the war, besides memorials to ordinary Japanese women and men who laid down their lives.

The move comes amid increasingly strained relations between China and Japan over disputed East China Sea islands. Ties between Tokyo and Seoul have also become frosty under Mr. Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it “condemned the Japanese leader’s wrongdoing” which “deeply hurt the feelings of Asian war victims.”

Spokesperson Qin Gang described the shrine as “a spiritual tool and symbol of Japanese aggression,” saying the visit would pose “a major new obstacle” to already tense relations over the islands dispute.

“In such circumstances, Japanese leaders showed no restraint, but went from bad to worse, making serious trouble on historical problems, which erect a major new political obstacle to the improvement and development of China-Japan relations,” he said, adding: “If Abe really respects his neighbours and wants to improve relations, he should visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall instead of the Yasukuni Shrine,” referring to the city where several hundred thousand Chinese were reported to have been massacred in 1937 by invading Japanese troops, who also committed various atrocities such as mass rapes – an incident that continues to invoke strong emotions in China today.

In South Korea, where the history of Japan’s occupation also remains an emotive issue, the government described the visit as “lamentable” and “an anachronistic act.” “Our government cannot repress lamentation and rage over Prime Minister Abe’s paying of respects at the Yasukuni shrine that glorifies its colonial aggressions and enshrines war criminals,” Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong, speaking on behalf of the government, was quoted as saying by the Seoul-based Yonhap news agency.

“Japan should face up to history,” he added, “and build trust with neighbouring countries that suffered Japan’s militaristic aggressions and colonial control through repentance and apology.”

The United States also expressed displeasure with its close ally, saying it was “disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours.”

Mr. Abe said it had “regrettably” become “a reality that the visit to Yasukuni Shrine has become a political and diplomatic issue.”

“It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people,” he said. “It is my wish to respect each other’s character, protect freedom and democracy, and build friendship with China and Korea with respect, as did all the previous Prime Ministers who visited the Yasukuni Shrine.”

Mr. Abe, who came to power as Prime Minister in September last year for a second term, has been criticised in China and South Korea for his “right-wing” and nationalistic views. The Japanese Prime Minister is, however, enjoying a wave of popularity following his strong electoral victory, credited with injecting vitality into the struggling economy.

He has also expressed his desire for rewriting Japan’s post-war Pacifist Constitution and beefing up the country’s military. Drawing his support from Japan’s conservative and nationalistic political base, he has, in the past, ruffled feathers in China and South Korea for his views on the country’s wartime history amid accusations that he has sought to play down atrocities.

On the foreign policy front, he has sought to boost Japan’s defence forces and deepen security ties with several countries in Asia, including India, with his government, earlier this week, announcing a significant rise in defence spending amid rising tensions with China, whose military spending still dwarfs Japan’s.

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