Members of the nationalist movement
Nationalist Ganbare Nippon march with Japanese flags in tribute at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo (Reuters)

China has summoned Japan's ambassador over a controversial visit by senior ministers to a shrine in Tokyo commemorating the Japanese soldiers who died during the 1937 invasion of China and World War II.

At least three cabinet ministers and dozens of politicans paid homage at Yasukuni Shrine, seen by many critics as a symbol of Japan's past militarism. Prime minister Shinzo Abe sent an official offering.

The move angered China's foreign ministry, who called it "an intrinsic attempt to deny and beautify that history of invasion by the Japanese militarists".

China's vice-foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told Japanese ambassador Masato Kitera that China severely condemned the tribute visit.

"We call upon Japan to rigorously honour their expression and commitment to deeply reflect on their history of invasion or there will be no future to Japan's relations with its Asian neighbours," Beijing said.

The shrine honours 14 Japanese wartime leaders who were convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal after World War II and of ordinary soldiers.

South Korea's foreign ministry called the visit "deplorable" and said it showed senior politicans in Japan were "still keeping their eyes shut to history".

Some Japanese conservatives defended the visit and said it was natural to honour the war dead.

Japan and China are already embroiled in a dispute over ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea islands. The archipelago is controlled by Japan but claimed by China.