Koizumi Stirs Anger With War Shrine Visit

China and South Korea strongly denounced a visit by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to pray and mark the end of World War II.
China and South Korea strongly denounced a visit by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to pray and mark the end of World War II. (By Koji Sasahara -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

TOKYO, Aug. 15 -- Outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi commemorated the anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific on Tuesday with a provocative visit to a Tokyo war shrine, a move seen as a parting shot at his critics in Asia who have decried his visits there as a glorification of Japan's militarist past.

Koizumi's annual trips to Yasukuni Shrine -- which is said to harbor the souls of 2.5 million fallen warriors, among them war criminals including Gen. Hideki Tojo -- have sharply heightened tensions with China and South Korea, both countries where memories of imperial Japanese aggression still run deep. However, until Tuesday, Koizumi had carefully avoided fulfilling an earlier campaign pledge to worship at the shrine on the sensitive anniversary of the end of World War II.

With only a few weeks left in his five-year tenure, Koizumi completed that promise on a drizzly Tuesday morning. Dressed in a formal morning coat and greeted by groups of enthusiastic Japanese nationalists, he made a solemn and deep bow at Yasukuni that was broadcast nationwide. It brought a fresh wave of anger in South Korea and China, whose relations with Tokyo have already reached their lowest point in decades in part because of the shrine visits.

South Korea and China immediately denounced the visit in the strongest terms. Even some officials in Koizumi's ruling alliance said they "regretted" his decision.

"We strongly protest against an action that has greatly hurt the feelings of the victims of Japanese military aggression and destroyed the political foundation of the China-Japan relationship," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on its Web site.

Japan's frosty relations with its neighbors, analysts say, are unlikely to thaw after Koizumi leaves office. His anointed successor, cabinet chief Shinzo Abe, is also considered a fierce Japanese nationalist and has suggested he would continue the shrine visits if he wins the prime minister's post next month as expected. Abe reportedly made his own homage to the shrine in April, although he has refused to confirm his visit publicly.

Koizumi's shrine pilgrimage Tuesday marked the first by a sitting Japanese prime minister on Aug. 15 since ultraconservative Yasuhiro Nakasone's homage there in 1985. The Yasukuni grounds are also home to a military museum that plays down Japan's wartime atrocities. A film there still describes the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as an act of "self-defense."

Koizumi insisted earlier this week that his critics would have assailed him no matter when he visited the shrine. Koizumi has said that he visits the shrine only to pray for peace and has reiterated Japanese apologies for World War II-era crimes. Although he has repeatedly said his visits are "personal," he has often signed the shrine registry using his official title as prime minister. He did so again Tuesday.

"I don't go there for the war criminals," Koizumi said. "I go there to mourn the many who made sacrifices."

U.S. officials have shown growing concern over rising tensions between Japan and China and South Korea, but they have been careful not to criticize Koizumi's Yasukuni visits. The prime minister is a friend of President Bush and is widely considered his closest ally in Asia.

Opinion polls have shown that the Japanese public remains split on the issue. Recently, there has been a growing domestic movement against Koizumi's visits following revelations last month that the late Emperor Hirohito was angry over the enshrining of war criminals' souls there in the 1970s and later opted to cease his own visits.

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