TOKYO, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Japan Friday faced growing criticism from its neighbors regarding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit to a shrine honoring Japanese war dead and war criminals.
Abe's brief visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo Thursday also did not sit well with Japan's closest ally, the United States, which expressed its disappointment and noted the visit "will exacerbate tensions" in the region.
The controversial shrine honors Japanese who died during World War II and previous conflicts, as well as war criminals. Neighbors like South Korea and China have always opposed the shrine, seeing it as a symbol of Japan's past wartime militarism that targeted the two countries.
Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to visit the shrine since 2006.
The visit comes at a time when Japan is locked in a worsening maritime dispute with China and seeks to mend ties with South Korea. It also follows China's unilateral establishment of an air defense identification zone in November in the East China Sea, further escalating the tensions there.
Denouncing Abe's visit, a ranking South Korean official told Yonhap News Agency Seoul has worked hard to improve relations with Japan, but Abe's shrine visit would only force changes in the bilateral policy line. The official's remark suggested South Korea would press even harder for Japan's contrition related to its sexual enslavement of Korean women and other atrocities during colonial rule (1910-45).
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi summoned Japanese Ambassador Masato Kitera to protest and condemn Abe's shrine visit, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday.
Calling Abe's visit a "major new political obstacle" in the already strained bilateral relations, Wang said China will fight to the finish if Japan continues to deliberately intensify existing tensions and confrontation, Xinhua said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang and Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng also condemned the visit.
Qin said Japan's aggression had inflicted atrocities on China and other Asian countries and called the Yasukuni shrine "a spiritual tool and symbol" of Japanese aggression during World War II.
The report said since Abe took office a year ago, his administration has shown "an irresponsible attitude to Japan's war history" by refusing to apologize to its Asian neighbors. It also accused the Abe government of trying to revise Japan's pacifist constitution.
Abe was quoted as saying his visit to the shrine was to pray for the souls of the war dead and not to honor war criminals.
Of the more than 2.4 million names reportedly enshrined at Yasukuni, 14 were found guilty of war crimes by a military tribunal in Tokyo in 1945.