Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a controversial shrine on Thursday honoring Japan's war dead, in a move that led to China warning that already-poor relations would worsen.
Abe's visit to the shrine, which honors 2.5 million Japanese soldiers and civilians killed in wars over the past 150 years, including convicted war criminals, appears to be a departure from his "pragmatic" approach to foreign policy, in which he tried to avoid alienating neighboring countries.
But many say Abe also has a tendency to glorify Japan’s military history to stir up patriotism.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang issued a strong rebuke in a statement posted on the ministry's website. "We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader's acts," Qin said.
He called visits to Yasukuni an effort to reaffirm the violence that characterized Japan’s history of invasions and colonial rule -- and to challenge the outcome of World War II.
"Japanese leaders are not only showing no moderation but have doubled their efforts and created a serious incident on historical issues," Qin said. "The essence of Japanese leaders' visits to the Yasukuni shrine is to beautify Japan's history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule.”
The visit was the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006, when Junichiro Koizumi went to the shrine.
Visits to Yasukuni by Japanese politicians have long been a point of friction with China and South Korea, because of Japan's brutal aggression during World War II.
Abe said criticism that the visits 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. "I have no intention to neglect the feelings of the people in China and South Korea."
Al Jazeera's Rob McBride, reporting from Hong Kong, said the rebuke from China was expected. "But the strength of the language was unusually harsh," McBride said.
"Relations between the two Asian nations are already at a low ebb given the current territorial dispute between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea," he said. "Abe’s visit is likely to further escalate the rhetoric from both sides."
The visit was also criticized by South Korean leaders, who also see the shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
"We can't help deploring and expressing anger at the prime minister's visit to the Yasukuni shrine ... despite concerns and warnings by neighbouring countries," South Korea’s Culture Minister Yoo Jin-Ryong told reporters.
"The visit ... is anachronistic behaviour that fundamentally damages not only relations between the South and Japan but also stability and cooperation in Northeast Asia."
Al Jazeera and wire services