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," Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement immediately after Abe's visit to the shrine.
China would make "solemn representations" to Japan over his actions, the ministry said.
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, who were enshrined in the 1970s.
"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, where their treatment of both civilian populations in occupied areas and prisoners of war was often appalling, with the Nanjing Massacre one of the worst atrocities recorded.
According to estimates by Chinese government researchers, China lost 20.6 million people directly from the war.
Even now the history is a key element of the backdrop to the two countries' bitter dispute over islands in the East China Sea, which Beijing sees as having been seized by Tokyo at the start of its expansionism.
Qin noted the row in his statement, 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 China-Japan relations.
The world's second- and third-biggest economies have significant business ties, but politically their relationship is often troubled, and at times tensions over the islands have raised fears of a possible military incident.
Qin's statement came after a Chinese foreign ministry official condemned Abe's action as "absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people".
Japan "must bear the consequences arising from this", Luo Zhaohui, director-general of the ministry's department of Asian affairs, said in a statement posted on a verified ministry microblog.
He added that the visit, the first by an incumbent Japanese prime minister since 2006, "causes great harm to the feelings of the Asian people and creates a significant new political obstacle to bilateral relations".
In a commentary issued soon after Abe's visit, the official Xinhua news agency contended that 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 Chinese Internet 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."