Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe paid his respects today at a shrine honouring Japan's war dead.
The move drew a quick rebuke from China warning that the visit celebrated Japan's military attacks on its neighbouring countries.
The visit to the shrine, which honours 2.5 million war dead including convicted war criminals, appears to be a departure from his "pragmatic" approach to foreign policy, in which he tried to avoid alienating neighbouring countries.
It was the first visit by a sitting prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi went in 2006.
Visits to Yasukuni by Japanese politicians have long been a point of friction with China and South Korea, because of Japan's brutal aggression during the Second World War.
Mr Abe, wearing a formal black jacket and striped, grey trousers, spent about 15 minutes at the Shinto shrine in central Tokyo.
TV cameras followed him inside the shrine property, but were not allowed in the inner shrine where he paid respects to the war dead.
"I prayed to pay respect for the war dead who sacrificed their precious lives and hoped that they rest in peace," he said after his visit.
He said criticism that Yasukuni visits are an act of worshipping war criminals is based on a misunderstanding.
"Unfortunately, a Yasukuni visit has largely turned into a political and diplomatic issue," he said, adding: "I have no intention to neglect the feelings of the people in China and South Korea."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang issued a strong rebuke.
"We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader's acts," he said.
He called visits to Yasukuni "an effort to glorify the Japanese militaristic history of external invasion and colonial rule ... and to challenge the outcome of World War II".
Today's visit came on the first anniversary of Mr Abe taking office as prime minister. He had visited previously when he was not prime minister, and had expressed regret over his decision not to go to Yasukuni during an earlier one-year term in office in 2006-2007.
"It's been one year since I took office and I chose this day to come here and report to the spirits about the progress over the past year and to renew my commitment to peace so that we will never cause anyone to suffer in war," he said.
Adding to the unease of Japan's neighbours is Mr Abe's support for revising Japan's pacifist constitution and expanding the military to counter rising tensions over a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Japan and China.