TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid his respects at a shrine honoring Japan’s war dead in an unexpected visit Thursday that drew sharp rebukes from China and South Korea, who warned the move celebrates his country’s militaristic past and could further sour relations.
On his first anniversary of taking office, Abe spent about 15 minutes at the Yasukuni shrine in central Tokyo.
“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.
Japanese politicians’ visits to Yasukuni have long caused friction with China and both Koreas 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.
It was the first visit to the Shinto-style war shrine by a sitting Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi went in 2006 to mark the end of World War II.
Abe previously visited Yasukuni while out of office.
Abe, a nationalist who advocates revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, has always wanted to visit Yasukuni as prime minister, but he 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.
The United States expressed disappointment “that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”
TV cameras followed Abe inside the shrine property, but were not allowed in the inner shrine.
The prime minister was dressed formally in black jacket with tails and striped, gray pants. There is no fixed dress code for shrine visits, but conservative lawmakers usually dress formally to be polite and dignified.
“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 thinks Japan must never wage war again: “This is my conviction, based on the severe remorse for the past.”