BEIJING - China strongly condemned Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the flashpoint Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo Thursday, saying it glorified Japan's "history of militaristic aggression".
"We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader's acts," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement immediately after Abe's visit to the shrine, the first by an incumbent Japanese prime minister since 2006.
China would make "solemn representations" to Tokyo over his actions, the ministry said, and the Japanese embassy in Beijing said a meeting between Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and visiting Japanese lawmakers had been cancelled.
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.
"The essence of Japanese leaders' visits to the Yasukuni shrine is to beautify Japan's history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule," Qin said, adding that Abe was "brutally trampling on the feelings of the Chinese people and those of other victimised Asian countries".
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 and their treatment of both civilians and prisoners of war was often appalling. The Nanjing Massacre was one of the worst atrocities.
According to estimates by Chinese government researchers, China lost 20.6 million people directly from the war.
If Abe genuinely wanted to improve relations between Tokyo and its Asian neighbours, "he should go to the memorial for the Nanjing Massacre rather than to Yasukuni shrine", Qin told reporters later at a regular briefing.
Even now the two countries' history is a key element of the backdrop to their bitter dispute over islands in the East China Sea, which Beijing sees as having been seized by Tokyo at the start of its expansionism.
In his statement, Qin also noted the row over the islands, contending that Japan's move last year to nationalise some of the outcrops - which are called Diaoyu by Beijing and Senkaku by Tokyo - was a "farce" that had led to "serious difficulties" in relations.
The world's second- and third-biggest economies have significant business ties, but politically their relationship is often troubled. At times tensions over the islands have raised fears of a military incident.
Taiwan, which Japan colonised from 1895 to 1945, also criticised Abe's visit, urging Tokyo to "face the facts and remember the lessons from history to refrain from taking any moves to hurt the people's feelings in neighbouring countries", its foreign ministry said in a statement.
In a commentary soon after Abe went to the shrine, China's official Xinhua news agency said 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 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 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."