BEIJING (AFP/REUTERS) - China strongly condemned Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the flashpoint Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on Thursday, saying it glorified Japan's "history of militaristic aggression".
"We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader's acts," Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement immediately after Mr Abe's visit to the shrine.
Yasukuni is believed to be the repository of around 2.5 million souls of Japan's war dead, most of them common soldiers but also including several high-level officials executed for war crimes after World War II, who were enshrined in the 1970s.
"The essence of Japanese leaders' visits to the Yasukuni shrine is to beautify Japan's history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule," Mr Qin said. "It is an attempt to overturn international society's just ruling on Japan's militarism and to challenge the results of World War II and the post-war international order," he added.
Mr Qin also urged Japan to keep its promises to reflect on its past wartime aggression.
"We solemnly urge Japan to abide by its commitment to reflect on its history of aggression, take measures to correct its error, eliminate the adverse effects and take concrete actions to win the trust of its Asian neighbours and the international community," he said.
The statement came after a Chinese foreign ministry official condemned Mr Abe's visit as "absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people".
Japan "must bear the consequences arising from this", Luo Zhaohui, director-general of the ministry's department of Asian affairs, said in a statement posted on a verified ministry microblog. He added that the visit, the first by an incumbent Japanese prime minister since 2006, "causes great harm to the feelings of the Asian people and creates a significant new political obstacle to bilateral relations".
In a commentary issued soon after Mr Abe's visit, the official Xinhua news agency contended that the Japanese leader "knows perfectly what he is doing and the consequences".
"Instead of a pledge against war, as Abe has claimed, the visit is a calculated provocation to stoke further tension," Xinhua wrote, adding that the visit "is the culmination of Abe's year-long policy of right-wing nationalism".
Users of China's popular social networks responded with fury to the move, with many noting that Mr Abe made his visit on the same day that Chinese President Xi Jinping was paying tribute to Mao Zedong on the 120th anniversary of the former leader's birth.
"Today, Xi Jinping paid homage to Mao Zedong, and Abe paid tribute to the Yasukuni shrine! You both chose the same day! This is a deliberate provocation," wrote one Chinese Internet user.
"The base of Abe's power comes from his confrontation with China, so whatever upsets China, that's what he'll do," another wrote. "No matter what he says about China-Japan friendship, Asian prosperity and joint promotion of peace, it's all a facade."
China's ruling Communist Party seeks to bolster its public support by tapping into deep-seated resentment of Japan for its brutal invasion of the country in the 1930s.
Before and during World War II Japanese forces swept through much of east Asia, where their treatment of both civilian populations in occupied areas and prisoners of war was appalling, with many massacres recorded.
Beijing estimates that 20.6 million people died in China as a result of the conflict.
Mr Abe said on Thursday after his visit to the Yasukuni shrine that relations with China and South Korea were important.
"I hope for an opportunity to explain to China and South Korea that strengthening ties would be in the national interest," Mr Abe told reporters after his visit to the shrine.
China and South Korea have repeatedly expressed anger in the past over Japanese politicians' visits to Yasukuni shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honoured along with war dead. The shrine is seen in parts of Asia as a symbol of Japanese past militarism.
Tokyo's relations with Beijing are already strained by territorial rows and disputes stemming from Japan's wartime occupation of large parts of China, which China considers Japan has never properly atoned for.