TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday he wanted to meet Chinese and South Korean leaders to explain why he visited a controversial war shrine, seen by critics as a symbol of Tokyo's wartime aggression.
Abe's December 26 visit to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals are enshrined along with other war dead, infuriated China and South Korea and prompted concern from the United States, a key ally.
"Seeking dialogue with China and South Korea is extremely important for the peace and security of this region," Abe told a news conference after paying a customary New Year's visit to a shrine in the central Japanese city of Ise.
"I would like to explain my true intentions regarding my visit to Yasukuni. There aren't any direct approaches being made to set up such meetings at present, but the door for dialogue is open, as always," Abe added, using what has become a standard phrase regarding summits with his northeast Asian neighbours.
China and South Korea have been especially touchy about visits to the shrine by serving Japanese prime ministers and Abe is the first leader to pay homage at Yasukuni while in office since 2006.
Paying respects at Yasukuni is part of Abe's conservative agenda to restore Japan's pride in its past and recast its wartime history with a less apologetic tone. He also wants to ease the restraints of Japan's post-World War Two pacifist constitution on the military, a move also likely to infuriate China and South Korea.
Abe said he hoped to deepen debate about constitutional reform within Japan and that he was confident he could make Beijing and Seoul understand.
"I am sure that I will be able to obtain the understanding of nearby nations about my administration's pursuit of peace if I explain it thoroughly," he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying expressed scepticism.
"Prime Minister Abe has paid lip service to the development of Sino-Japanese relations, but in reality, his statements are hypocritical," Hua said. "It is he who has personally closed the door to dialogue with Chinese leaders."
Both China and Korea suffered under Japanese rule, with parts of China occupied in the 1930s and Korea colonised from 1910 to 1945.
Business ties between China and Japan, the world's second- and third-largest economies, have improved after a downturn sparked by a flare-up in 2012 in a row over tiny East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but also claimed by China.
But worries are growing that an unintended incident between Japanese and Chinese aircraft and ships playing cat-and-mouse near the disputed isles could escalate into a military clash.