The Chinese government summoned Japan's ambassador for a protest Thursday after two ministers in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, seen in China as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
In a meeting with Ambassador Masato Kitera, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin conveyed China's "strong protest and severe condemnation" of the shrine visits on the 68th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The statement said that no matter in what form or capacity Japanese leaders visit the war-linked shrine, it is essentially an attempt to "deny and beautify" Japan's history of militarism and invasion of its Asian neighbors.
During the meeting at the ministry that lasted about 45 minutes, Kitera, however, said his government is not in a position to make comments on Japanese political leaders' actions made in their private capacity, according to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing.
Kitera also told Liu that Japan has been following the path of "a peaceful country" since the end of the war and regards its relations with China as "one of the most important ones," according to the embassy.
It is very rare for the Chinese government to summon a Japanese ambassador for ministerial-level Yasukuni visits.
Yasukuni honors Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal along with millions of war dead. Past visits to the Shinto shrine by Japanese political leaders have infuriated countries that were victims of Japanese wartime aggression, especially China and South Korea.
The war anniversary was marked at a time when Tokyo's relations with Beijing and Seoul have plummeted to the worst levels in many years over territorial and historical issues.
The Japanese Embassy in Beijing was guarded Thursday by more police officers and vehicles than usual, while the state-owned Central China Central Television aired a special program urging vigilance over the Abe government's "turn to the right."
Although Abe himself did not visit the shrine, evidently to avoid escalating tensions with China and South Korea, internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo and Keiji Furuya, state minister dealing with North Korea's past abductions of Japanese nationals, did go there in the morning to pay homage.
CCTV and the official Xinhua News Agency quickly reported about their visits, with Xinhua saying they "will further harm mutual trust between Japan and its neighbors."
Later in the day, Tomomi Inada, state minister in charge of administrative reform, as well as more than 100 lawmakers, also visited the shrine.
No anti-Japan protests were seen in Beijing. But three men with a banner saying "destroy Japan's militarism" appeared in front of the Japanese Consulate-General in Shanghai and protested against the Yasukuni visits.
Some experts view Abe's decision to refrain from touching on Japan's reflection of having caused damage to other Asian countries in the war in a government-sponsored memorial service as more problematic.
Since 1994, all Japanese prime ministers, including Abe himself during his first term in 2006-2007, have also pledged to renounce wars at an annual ceremony on the anniversary day. But this time Abe did not.
Li Wei, director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Kyodo News that Abe is insensitive to the feelings of countries that were victims of Japan's wartime aggression.
"I think it is wrong to think that his decision not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine is enough," Li said. "The premier's historical and world views are fundamental problems and it would be very difficult to mend bilateral relations."
Xinhua also dispatched a commentary, titled "Irresponsible attitudes toward history jeopardize Japan's future," in which it said that Abe's "nod to the ministers' visits and their recent provocative remarks signals that the current Japanese government has gone too far on the right-leaning road, raising fears among Japan's neighbors about a dangerous revival of its militarist past."
The commentary concluded by saying, "On this special day, Japan must reflect upon its history of aggression, sincerely apologize to the victims of its militarist past, and thus work to secure a peaceful future for the country itself and the region at large."
Over the past weeks, Chinese media have repeatedly warned that the Japanese government is increasingly becoming "right-leaning," such as by refusing to face up squarely to Japan's wartime history and making efforts to amend the pacifist Constitution.