Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday, which honors Japan's war dead including convicted World War II criminals. It was the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to the shrine since Junichiro Koizumi in 2006.
The visit angered not only Korea and China, who see the shrine as a symbol of Japanese wartime atrocities, but also domestic critics after a Japanese court ruled in 2004 that visits by the country's prime minister could be a violation of the pacifist constitution drafted after World War II.
"We can't help deploring and expressing anger at the prime minister's visit to the Yasukuni shrine... despite concerns and warnings by neighboring countries," Korean Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong said in a statement. "Japan should shed its erroneous view of history that tries to whitewash its past and glorify past aggressions."
The government convened an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss a response. Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kyou-hyun summoned the deputy chief of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, Takashi Kurai, and lodged a protest. The government is considering summoning the ambassador as well.
In China, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters, "We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader's acts." He accused Abe of posing "a serious political hindrance to improvement and development of bilateral relations."
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi summoned the Japanese ambassador and lodged a "strong protest," according to Xinhua News.
But Abe was defiant. "I have no intention at all of hurting the feelings of the Chinese or the [Korean] people," he told reporters.
"There is criticism based on the misconception that this is an act to worship war criminals, but I visited Yasukuni shrine to report to the souls of the war dead on the progress made this year and to convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war," he added.
In an unusual direct criticism of Japan's leader by its main ally, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said on its website, "The United States is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors."