Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from right, follows a Shinto priest to pay respect for the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. Abe visited Yasukuni war shrine in a move sure to infuriate China and South Korea. The visit to the shrine, which honors 2.5 million war dead including convicted class A 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. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a Shinto shrine Thursday that honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 war criminals, and is seen by Asian neighbors as a symbol of the nation’s unrepentant militarism.

The visit to Yasukuni Shrine, the first by a sitting Japanese leader in seven years, raises the prospect of even deeper hostility between an already isolated Japan and its neighbors. It also suggests that Abe, after a year of focusing on pragmatic, economic issues, is increasingly willing to play to his conservative base — a group that thinks Japan has been unfairly vilified for its wartime past.

Abe said he went to the shrine to reflect on the “preciousness of peace,” not to antagonize South Korea and China. But those countries responded furiously, with Beijing’s Foreign Ministry calling the visit a “gross violation of the feelings of Chinese people and people from other Asian countries” who were harmed during World War II.

The incident also raises fresh concerns for the Obama administration, which has encouraged Abe to reconcile with Japan’s neighbors and keep quiet about deeply held but historically inaccurate views on Japan’s wartime past.

“Japan is a valued ally and friend,” the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said in a statement. “Nevertheless, the United States is dis­appointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions” in the region.

Abe’s visit comes amid a fierce dispute with China over maritime territory in the East China Sea. Abe has said for months that he is interested in easing tensions through dialogue. But some analysts said Thursday that his sojourn to Yasukuni hints at a different strategy, one in which he abandons the idea of reconciliation and instead uses the tensions to justify a broad right-wing platform that includes constitutional changes and relaxed restrictions on Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

Relations in this region remain fraught, in part because of the debate over wartime history and whether Japan has properly atoned for the deeds of its imperial army. Some previous Japanese leaders have tried to apologize for those wartime actions; others have said little about them. But Abe has frequently suggested in speeches that Japan should be proud of its history, sparking criticism that he is encouraging the whitewashing of past atrocities — an exoneration that the Yasukuni Shrine has come to represent.

“I think he wants to show the Japanese people that he’s a leader who will stand up to pressure from the neighbors,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus who has written extensively about wartime memory in Japan. “No more masochistic history to please the neighbors. Japan is, in a sense, deciding unilaterally to turn the page on history.”

Abe wore formal morning dress, including a long coat and striped trousers, for his visit to the shrine, which lasted about 15 minutes, the Associated Press reported. He said in a statement that he prayed “for the souls of all those who had fought for the country and made ultimate sacrifices.”

“Regrettably, it is a reality that the visit to Yasukuni Shrine has become a political and diplomatic issue,” Abe said. “Some people criticize the visit to Yasukuni as paying homage to war criminals. But the purpose of my visit today, on the anniversary of my administration’s taking office, is to report before the souls of the war dead how my administration has worked for one year and to renew the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again.”

For many Japanese, Yasukuni is simply a religious site honoring the nation’s 2.5 million war dead. But even domestically, it is controversial. Japan’s emperors have quietly boycotted it since 1978, when the war criminals were enshrined. At a war museum on the grounds, Japan’s brutal invasions of Korea and China are described as justified attempts to free Asia from Western imperialism. There is no mention of the massacre of Nanjing or the military’s use of front-line sex slaves.

Visits by prime ministers have long had diplomatic consequences. When Yasuhiro Nakasone visited in 1985, the backlash was strong enough that no other prime minister visited for the next 11 years. Junichiro Koizumi visited every year between 2001 and 2006, but those trips caused a sharp downturn in relations with China.

It was Abe, in his first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, who helped to temporarily repair ties with China. But he has since expressed regret for staying away from Yasukuni during that period. In October 2012, two months before his election, he made a trip to the site. During spring and fall festivals this year, he stayed home, but both times he sent an aide to deliver a ritual offering.

Abe’s visit to Yasukuni is “ill-advised” politically, said Harumi Arima, a Tokyo-based political analyst and a former parliamentary aide, but reflects the prime minister’s “philosophy and conviction.”

Since taking office, Abe has made several trips to Southeast Asia, where nations have concerns about China’s growing power in the region. But he has yet to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping or South Korean President Park Geun-hye, both of whom are hemmed in by anti-Japan sentiment in their countries. In South Korea, about 5 percent of the population has a “favorable” view of Abe, a rating just slightly better than that of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank.

Meanwhile, rancor between China and Japan increased last month with Beijing’s announcement of a new air-defense identification zone over the East China Sea. China says its maritime action was spurred by Japan, which last year purchased several contested islands from a private landowner. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said Thursday that relations can improve only if Japan faces up to its “history of aggression.”

“Instead of reining in his acts, the Japanese leader has gone out of his way to once again create a serious incident on the issue of history, thus erecting a new, major political barrier to the improvement and development of bilateral ties,” the spokesman said. “The Japanese side must bear the responsibility for all the consequences arising therefrom.”

Yuki Oda in Tokyo and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.