WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States on Thursday criticised Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a war shrine visit that infuriated Japan's neighbours, in a rare break to usually unstinting US support to its ally.
US advocacy of a stronger Japan - including a more active security role by the officially pacifist country - has been a core principle for Washington in a region marked by the rise of China and an increasingly worrisome North Korea.
But Mr Abe, known for his passionate belief that Japan should take greater pride in its history, defied US admonitions - until now voiced quietly - to stay away from the Yasukuni shrine, which venerates the souls of 2.5 million Japanese war dead.
"Japan is a valued ally and friend. Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors," a State Department statement said.
The US executive branch virtually never rebukes Japan, which Washington is bound by treaty to protect, except on trade issues.
China and fellow US ally South Korea voiced outrage over Abe's visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which in addition to common soldiers honors officials executed by a US-backed war crimes tribunal after World War II.
Mr Abe made clear he did not intend to promote militarism, saying that he sought friendship with Chinese and Koreans, and had visited the shrine "to renew the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again." Michael Green, who was former president George W. Bush's top adviser on Asia, said that many US officials were surprised by Mr Abe's pilgrimage and believed that Vice President Joe Biden had successfully communicated US misgivings on a visit earlier this month.
"I think it's not so much a sense of moral outrage for the administration but a genuine disappointment because this distracts from so much of the momentum in the alliance at a critical time," said Mr Green, now the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Weeks earlier, the United States, Japan and South Korea had found common cause after China declared an air defense identification zone over a vast stretch of the East China Sea, which covers islands administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.
Mr Abe was the first sitting prime minister to visit the Yasukuni shrine since Junichiro Koizumi, who defiantly went each year during his 2001-2006 tenure. The United States did not criticize Mr Koizumi, who enjoyed a close relationship with Bush.
Mr Green said the situation was different as Mr Abe, whose grandfather was arrested but not charged as a war criminal, had an ideological reputation and was moving ahead on defense cooperation and other US-backed initiatives.
"China will oppose any effort to strengthen the US-Japan alliance. But we in the US need (South) Korea to be on its side as Japan undertakes these reforms," Mr Green said.