Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday sent a ritual offering to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, seen by some as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, as the nation marked the 78th anniversary of the end of World War II.
In another development, economic security minister Sanae Takaichi visited the Shinto shrine, marking the fourth consecutive year that a Cabinet member has offered prayers at Yasukuni on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in the war.
Kishida sent the "masakaki" offering to the shrine which has long been a source of diplomatic tension with China and South Korea. The prime minister, who heads a dovish faction within the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party, eschewed an in-person visit as he has done previously.
He paid for the offering personally under the title of leader of the LDP, a ruling lawmaker said. Instead of visiting Yasukuni, Kishida laid flowers at the nearby Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery.
The Yasukuni shrine honors the souls of the country's more than 2.4 million war dead, but Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals in a post-World War II international tribunal are also enshrined there.
Among high-ranking politicians, LDP policy chief Koichi Hagiuda paid his respects at Yasukuni, as well as a cross-party group of lawmakers that visit regularly.
Takaichi, known for her hawkish views on security matters, told reporters after visiting the shrine that she offered her condolences to those who lost their lives "for a national policy."
Responding to Kishida's tribute and the visit by other lawmakers to the shrine, the South Korean Foreign Ministry expressed "deep disappointment and regret" as it said in a statement the shrine "glorifies Japan's past wars of aggression and enshrines war criminals."
While bilateral ties have been improving, with Seoul announcing a solution to a long-standing dispute over wartime labor compensation earlier this year, the ministry said it called on "responsible figures in Japan to face history squarely and to demonstrate humble reflection and genuine remorse for the past."
Beijing on Tuesday made a serious representation to Tokyo over the moves by Kishida and Takaichi.
"Japanese politicians' negative performance regarding the shrine once again reflects Japan's wrong attitude toward history," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press conference.
Wang stressed that facing up to and reflecting on its own history of aggression is a prerequisite for Japan to restore and develop normal relations with its Asian neighbors.
"We urge Japan to draw lessons from the history, stick to the path of peaceful development and take concrete actions to make a clean break with militarism, and avoid further losing the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community," he added.
Past visits to the shrine by prime ministers, such as the assassinated Shinzo Abe, and other lawmakers have drawn sharp criticism from China and South Korea, where memories of Japanese militarism before and during the war run deep.
Japan invaded a vast swath of China before the end of World War II and ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
In December 2013, Abe, who was known as a security hawk, paid a visit to the shrine, angering Beijing and Seoul, while the United States, Tokyo's key security ally, said it was "disappointed" by Abe's actions because the move exacerbated "tensions with Japan's neighbors."
With the apparent aim of avoiding confrontation, recent prime ministers have sent offerings to the shrine for its biannual festivals during the spring and fall, as well as for the anniversary of the 1945 end of World War II.
Relations between Tokyo and Beijing have frayed recently, with China strongly opposing Japan's plan to release treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, crippled by a devastating earthquake and ensuing tsunami in 2011.
In 1978, Yasukuni added 14 Class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, to the enshrined deities, stirring controversy at home and abroad. Tojo was executed by hanging for crimes against peace.