TOKYO (REUTERS) - Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine for war dead on Saturday (Sept 19), his first visit since December 2013, after refraining from doing so for most of his term to avoid angering China and South Korea.
Mr Abe announced the visit on his official Twitter account along with a photo of himself at the shrine, just days after Mr Yoshihide Suga succeeded him as Japan's leader. Japan's longest-serving leader stepped down, citing health problems.
The shrine is seen by Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Japan's past military aggression because it honours 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal as well as war dead.
Mr Abe had only visited the shrine in person once during his last tenure as prime minister but regularly sent offerings via an aide during the shrine's spring and autumn festivals.
His pilgrimage to the shrine in 2013 sparked outrage in South Korea and China and an expression of "disappointment" from the United States.
On Saturday, South Korea’s foreign ministry released a statement expressing "deep concern and regret" that Mr Abe paid respect at the shrine "immediately" after his resignation as prime minister.
Mr Suga, who was the chief government spokesman under Mr Abe, was not among the Abe Cabinet ministers who visited the shrine on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II on Aug 15.
Mr Suga made a visit to the shrine in August 2011, according to a post on his official blog, well before becoming the Abe government’s chief Cabinet secretary in December 2012.
Washington and Tokyo have become close security allies in the decades since the war's end but its legacy has left scars in East Asia.
Ties between Tokyo and Seoul have remained strained due to bitter memories of Japan's 1910-1945 colonisation of Korea, including a dispute over compensation for Koreans forced to work on Japan's sites during wartime.
Tokyo says the matter was settled by a 1965 treaty normalising relations.