Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, seen by Asian neighbors as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, as its two-day spring festival began Tuesday.
The "masakaki" tree offering was made under the name of the prime minister, as was the case in recent festivals at the Shinto shrine, which honors convicted war criminals along with more than 2.4 million war dead. Abe is expected to refrain from visiting the shrine during the festival.
This year's event is shorter than usual amid the new coronavirus outbreak. Abe is asking people in Japan to refrain from unnecessary outings to curb coronavirus infections. Last week he expanded a state of emergency declared on April 7 for urban areas to all 47 prefectures.
Two members of Abe's Cabinet, health minister Katsunobu Kato and internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, also made ritual offerings.
(People visit Yasukuni Shrine in 2019)
South Korea received Abe's ritual offering with "deep disappointment and regret," a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a commentary, calling the shrine a "symbolic facility which glorifies Japan's history of colonial rule and war of aggression."
"Our government strongly urges the leaders of Japan to show their will to improve the South Korea-Japan relations by squarely facing history and demonstration through action their humble reflection and sincere remorse for Japan's past history," the commentary said.
Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry said offerings to the shrine "reflect Japan's wrong attitude towards its history of aggression," and urged Japan to honor its commitments and "take practical actions to win trust from its Asian neighbors and the international community."
Past visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders and lawmakers, including Abe in December 2013, have drawn sharp criticism from China and South Korea where memories of Japan's militarism run deep.
A cross-party group of conservative lawmakers have also decided not to visit the shrine during the festival, the first time since its formation in 1981.
It is customary for the group to go to the shrine during the shrine's spring and autumn festivals as well as on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II in 1945.
Japan's relations with China have been improving markedly despite outstanding differences over history and the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. China also claims the uninhabited islets, which it calls Diaoyu.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to Japan, originally slated for this spring, would have highlighted a further thaw in relations but the trip was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In stark contrast, Japan-South Korea ties remain chilled after South Korean court rulings in 2018 ordered Japanese firms to pay damages to South Koreans for forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
The dispute also spilled over to trade and a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact was pushed to the brink of collapse last year.