Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday commemorated the 77th anniversary of the official start of war with Japan, condemning those who "ignore the iron facts of history" in a jab at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Xi and a cast of hundreds of soldiers and schoolchildren gathered for a ceremony on the edge of the capital to mark the Marco Polo Bridge incident, a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops on July 7, 1937 that served as a pretext for Tokyo's forces to seize Beijing and trigger the Sino-Japanese war.
The event, carried live on state television, came amid a deluge of articles in China's state and Communist Party-controlled media linked to the anniversary and criticising Tokyo for historical revisionism and moves towards potential remilitarisation.
The conflict, commonly known in China as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, led to the death of some 20 million Chinese, according to Beijing's estimates. It ended with Tokyo's World War II defeat in 1945.
Flanked by ageing war veterans and young students, Xi unveiled a slab-like sculpture marking the start of the conflict and praised the resistance of all sectors of Chinese society against what he described as Japan's "barbaric invasion" aimed at "annexing" China.
"There are still a small number of people who ignore the iron facts of history," Xi said.
He avoided mentioning Japan or Abe by name, but it was still an unusually pointed comment by China's head of state.
"History is history and facts are facts. Nobody can change history and facts," he added. "Anyone who intends to deny, distort or beautify history will not find agreement among Chinese people and people of all other countries."
In Taiwan dozens of slogan-chanting protesters tore up Japanese military flags and portraits of Abe, attempting to set fire to them before they were stopped by police.
Xi's remarks come as Tokyo and Beijing are locked in a territorial dispute over Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea, and after Japan last week announced a reinterpretation of its pacifist constitution that Beijing argues could send the country down the path to remilitarisation.
Japan has issued repeated apologies over the war. But frequent statements by conservative politicians and public figures seemingly casting doubt on them and calling into question factual issues have increased suspicion in China and some other countries such as South Korea.
Abe's visit in December to a controversial Tokyo shrine that memorialises Japan's war dead, along with convicted World War II criminals, only added fuel to the fire.
Ahead of the anniversary, China last week began releasing a daily "confession" by Japanese war criminals set to continue for 45 days, and state-run media have been intensifying criticism of Japan. State TV on Monday showed footage of a woman's emotional testimony at a 1956 war crimes proceeding.
In a commentary, the official news agency Xinhua said: "Seventy-seven years later, the psychological wounds of the Chinese people have not been fully healed, as Japanese rightists have repeatedly denied its atrocities of the aggression and taken a provocative approach in addressing ties with its neighbouring countries."
Xi spoke after wrapping up a two-day trip on Friday to South Korea, where he said "Japanese militarists carried out barbarous wars of aggression against China and Korea" in an address at Seoul National University.
During the trip Xi and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, who has criticised Japan over history, reportedly discussed cooperating on the 70th anniversary next year of Japan's defeat in World War II.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga slammed such a prospect as "utterly unhelpful for building peace and cooperation in the region".