Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Thursday for the first time since assuming the premiership a year ago, triggering criticism not only from Japan's closest neighbors -- China and South Korea -- but also from Tokyo's key ally, the United States, which expressed strong concern that it could raise tensions in Asia.
"I expressed my sincere condolences, paid my respects and prayed for the souls of all those who made ultimate sacrifices," Abe told reporters after visiting the Shinto shrine, which honors Class-A World War II criminals along with those killed in wars involving Japan.
Stressing that his shrine visit reflected his determination that Japan will never wage war again, Abe said, "It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people."
Many countries, especially neighboring ones, view the shrine as symbolic of Japan's militarism and lawmakers visiting it as glossing over the country's wartime aggression in the region.
While China and South Korea immediately condemned the visit, the United States released a statement through its embassy in Tokyo, saying it was "disappointed" that Abe had taken action that will "exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors," adding it "hopes that both Japan and its neighbors will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past."
Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit the shrine since Junichiro Koizumi in 2006. The latest visit came as Abe marked the first anniversary of his government's launch.
During his first stint as prime minister between 2006 and 2007, Abe refrained from visiting Yasukuni in an effort to improve ties with China and South Korea. But he later described his decision as "extremely regrettable" and after taking office for the second time in December 2012 expressed his eagerness to visit the shrine.
On Thursday, a motorcade carrying Abe, who wore mourning dress, arrived at the shrine in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward shortly before noon. He offered white chrysanthemums at the shrine.
Abe released a statement that said, "The purpose of my visit today...is to report before the souls of the war-dead how my administration has worked for one year and to renew the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again."
China, however, responded quickly, with a Foreign Ministry statement expressing "strong anger" and calling the visit a "challenge to the common sense of humankind."
Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua met with Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki to lodge a protest. Saiki urged the Chinese envoy to respond calmly to Abe's Yasukuni visit and asked that the safety of Japanese nationals and companies in China be ensured.
South Korea also reacted immediately, with a government spokesman condemning Abe's visit to the "shrine that glorifies (Japan's) colonial aggressions and enshrines war criminals," according to Yonhap News Agency.
The visit is certain to cause a further deterioration in Japan's ties with China and South Korea, already soured over territorial disputes and differing perceptions of history. Abe has so far failed to hold a summit with the leaders of the two countries.
Even his political allies expressed concern that the Yasukuni visit could further raise tensions in Asia and complicate efforts to address the situation.
"It is regrettable he visited the shrine," said Natsuo Yamaguchi, who heads the New Komeito party, the junior coalition partner of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.
Yamaguchi, who met with China's President Xi Jinping in January to seek a bilateral summit, told reporters Thursday that he had disapproved of Abe's plan to visit Yasukuni when the prime minister informed him of it in the morning.
Japan's top government spokesman said Tokyo will seek the U.S. government's understanding over Abe's decision.
"We are explaining to relevant countries," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference without elaborating. He denied the Yasukuni visit will hurt Abe's ties with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Despite such criticism, Abe's Cabinet ministers appeared to play down the controversial visit.
"Why do other nations have to comment on Japan's domestic affairs," Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshitaka Shinto told a press conference. "I want China and South Korea to understand it," said the minister, who himself often visits Yasukuni.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that visiting Yasukuni is a matter of "personal inclination," adding, "We must prevent it from becoming a political or diplomatic problem."
Abe refrained from visiting the shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II in 1945, instead paying for a ritual offering.
He also did not visit Yasukuni during its festivals in April and October, only dedicating a potted tree as an offering on each occasion.
Abe's restraint was seen in some quarters as caving in to pressure from China and South Korea, frustrating his conservative supporters.
Koizumi, who repeatedly visited Yasukuni while in office between 2001 and 2006, recently suggested Abe visit the shrine.
"Since I left office, no prime minister has visited the shrine. But did it help improve Japan-China relations?" the former prime minister asked at a press conference in November.
Abe said in his statement Thursday it is regrettable that visiting the shrine "has become a political and diplomatic issue."
He expressed his desire to "build friendship with China and South Korea with respect," while adding, "I would like to ask for the kind understanding of all of you."