A policeman stands guard at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo December 26, 2013. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine for war dead on Thursday. (YUYA SHINO/REUTERS)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a shrine honoring Japan’s war dead Thursday in a move that drew a quick rebuke from China warning that already poor relations would worsen.

The visit to the shrine, which honors 2.5 million war dead including convicted war criminals, appears to be a departure from Abe’s “pragmatic” approach to foreign policy, in which he tried to avoid alienating neighboring countries. It was the first visit by a sitting prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi went to mark the end of World War II 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 World War II.

Abe, wearing a formal black jacket with tails and striped, gray pants, 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 told waiting reporters.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang issued a strong rebuke in a statement posted on the ministry’s Web site.

“We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader’s acts,” Qin said.