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Backlash at Japan after PM Shinzo Abe visits controversial war shrine

Tensions are rising between Asian countries after Japan's prime minister visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan's war dead. South Korea and China quickly condemned the visit, calling it an obstacle to bilateral relations.

TOKYO - Japan faced an international political and economic backlash Thursday after prime minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine which honors the nation’s war dead – including those convicted of war crimes.

The United States expressed disappointment at the move, while Japanese auto makers were braced for a consumer kickback that could dent sales, particularly in China.

South Korea termed the visit a deplorable and anachronistic act that damaged ties between the two countries and summoned a top Japanese diplomat in Seoul to protest
"We cannot withhold regret and anger over the visit," said Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Yoo Jin-ryong, according to Reuters.

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said Japan’s leadership had “taken an action that will exacerbate tensions” with neighbors.

China's foreign ministry called the visit a "brazen" act. "The Chinese government expresses strong indignation at the Japanese leader's trampling on the feelings of the people of China and the other war victim nations and the open challenge to historical justice...and expresses strong protest and serious condemnation to Japan," it said. 

Toru Yamanaka / AFP - Getty Images

A Shinto priest (right) leads Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (center) as he visits the controversial Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, Thursday.

Abe said the visit had been misinterpreted as paying homage to war criminals, and that he did he intend to offend the people of Korea or China.

The Yasukuni Shrine, in Tokyo, honors Japan’s 2.4 million war dead but also includes 14 class A war criminals convicted by the international war tribunal after World War II.

A museum in the shrine's grounds depicts the Pacific war as one Japan was forced to fight in self-defense and has been criticized for ignoring the atrocities Imperial Japanese troops committed in Asia, Reuters reported.

Japanese auto makers suffered a sales decline in China last year after a territorial dispute between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea.

Yuya Shino / Reuters

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leaves the controversial Yasukuni Shrine after paying tribute to the war dead, Thursday.

The Nissan Motor Co. said it was “closely monitoring” the aftermath of the visit, according to a statement quoted by Bloomberg.

“We’re still at a stage where we need to carefully monitor the impact, but it’s obvious that this only has a negative impact on Japan,” said Mitsushige Akino, chief fund manager at Ichiyoshi Asset Management in Tokyo told Bloomberg. “The visit poses great geopolitical risks.”

Thursday’s visit marks the one year anniversary since Abe took office, and the first by a prime minister since 2006.

Despite the Abe administration's successful year in turning around the nation's economy, the governments's most pronounced shortcoming has been the deteriorating relations with China and South Korea, resulting in the failure to set up bilateral talks with leaders of both countries.

With today's shrine visit, that goal is expected to become even harder to achieve in the coming year.

NBC News' Alastair Jamieson in London, Eric Baculinao in Beijing and Reuters contributed to this report

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