TOKYO - Former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui, despised by Beijing for asserting the self-ruled island's sovereignty, paid his respects at a Tokyo war shrine on Thursday, despite China's objections.
Mr Lee's visit could cast a cloud over the recent thaw in Sino-Japanese relations, although a Japanese government spokesman said it would have 'nearly zero effect' on ties.
China had warned Japan it risked harming ties by allowing Lee to visit the country, while Tokyo had said Mr Lee's trip was just for tourism and should have no impact on ties with Beijing.
Mr Lee told a news conference before going that his pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine was a personal matter to pay respects to his elder brother, who died fighting for the Japanese during World War Two, when Taiwan was a Japanese colony.
Mr Lee, 84, had said since arriving in Japan last week that he wanted to visit the shrine, seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan's militarism before and during World War Two.
'It is completely personal, please don't think of anything political or historical,' he said. 'As family, to show respect to my elder brother by visiting the shrine is something I must do.'
The shrine honours millions of Japanese war dead - among them soldiers from Taiwan and Korea who fought for Japan, their colonial ruler at the time - but also some convicted war criminals including wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had said Japan was a free country and would not prevent Mr Lee from visiting the shrine, a stance a foreign ministry spokesman echoed on Thursday.
'There is practically nothing that the Japanese government can do about it. Even if he visits, it would have nearly zero effect on China-Japan relationship,' said foreign ministry deputy spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi.
Mr Lee's visit to the shrine could further annoy Beijing and risk damaging the fragile rapprochement in Sino-Japanese ties that began after Mr Abe took office in September and made an ice-breaking trip to Beijing.
Bilateral ties had worsened under Mr Abe's predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, largely due to Mr Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni.
Before becoming prime minister, Mr Abe had backed Mr Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni, but he has declined to say whether he would go there while in the country's top post.
In another move that might irk Beijing, Japan's Justice Ministry decided to let US-based Chinese pro-democracy activist Wei Jingsheng enter the country for a medical examination because of a worsening medical condition, Kyodo reported.
Mr Wei had arrived at Tokyo's Narita airport on the weekend to attend an event to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that killed hundreds, possible thousands, of students and workers.
But Japanese immigration authorities had refused him permission to enter the country because he lacked a visa. He has been staying at a hotel near the airport since his arrival.
Mr Wei, 57, suffers from diabetes, Kyodo said. -- REUTERS