TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's new prime minister on Sunday (Oct 17) sent a ritual offering to the controversial Yasukuni shrine that honours war dead and is seen by neighbouring countries as a symbol of Tokyo's past militarism.
Mr Fumio Kishida sent the "masakaki" tree offering under his name as prime minister to celebrate the shrine's biannual festival held in spring and autumn, a spokesman for the shrine told Agence France-Presse.
Two of Mr Kishida's ministers - Mr Shigeyuki Goto, Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare; and Mr Kenji Wakamiya, Minister in Charge of the 2025 World Exposition in Osaka - also offered sacred trees.
The shrine in central Tokyo honours 2.5 million war dead, mostly Japanese, who have died since the late 19th century.
But it also enshrines senior military and political figures convicted of war crimes by an international tribunal.
Earlier this year, three top ministers paid their respects at the shrine on the anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender.
But a Japanese prime minister has not appeared there since 2013, when Mr Shinzo Abe sparked fury in Beijing and Seoul and earned a rare diplomatic rebuke from the United States, a close ally.
On Sunday, Mr Kishida's predecessor, Mr Yoshihide Suga, made a pilgrimage to the shrine, the shrine's spokesman said, while public broadcaster NHK showed footage of his visit.
Mr Suga had avoided visiting the shrine after 2012, when he became the Abe government's spokesman, and only sent ritual offerings when he became prime minister.
Visits to the shrine by government officials have angered countries that suffered at the hands of the Japanese military during World War II, particularly South Korea and China.
Mr Kishida, who became Japan's prime minister on Oct 4, does not plan to visit the shrine during the two-day autumn festival that runs through Monday, Kyodo News reported, citing unnamed people close to him.
But Seoul's foreign ministry Sunday expressed "deep disappointment" at his decision to send an offering.
"The government expresses and regrets that Japanese leaders again sent the offering or repeated their visits to the Yasukuni shrine," it said in a statement, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.
Seoul urged Tokyo's leaders to "squarely face history and show by action their humble introspection on and genuine self-reflection for the past history".
The Global Times, China's nationalistic newspaper, wrote on Sunday that Mr Kishida had made a "bad start" with the offering, which "demonstrated again the rise of right-wing conservative forces in Tokyo".
China lodged solemn representations with Japan over the matter, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday at a regular press briefing in Beijing.