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Japanese Leader Prays at War Shrine

August 15, 2006

TOKYO (AP) _ Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a pilgrimage Tuesday to a Tokyo war shrine reviled by critics as a symbol of militarism, triggering a further erosion in Japan’s ties with its neighbors just a month before he leaves office.

The impact of the visit to Yasukuni Shrine, Koizumi’s sixth as prime minister, was heightened by its timing on Aug. 15, a date viewed with sadness in Japan as the anniversary of its World War II surrender, but celebrated as a day of liberation from Japanese colonial rule elsewhere in Asia.

The early morning pilgrimage prompted protests in China and South Korea, which suffered heavily under Japanese occupation. The countries view the shrine, which honors war criminals among Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, as a glorification of imperialism.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called on Japan to ``prove it has no intention to repeat″ its past aggression as his government summoned the Japanese ambassador to issue an official protest.

In Beijing, flag-waving protesters gathered outside the Japanese Embassy, as Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing condemned Koizumi for ``obstinately″ visiting the shrine. He also summoned Japan’s ambassador to issue a protest.

Koizumi defended the Yasukuni visit _ his first as prime minister on Aug. 15 _ by saying that he goes there to pray for peace and to honor fallen soldiers, not to glorify militarism.

He also accused China and South Korea of using the issue to pressure Japan. Both countries have refused to hold summits with Koizumi unless he stops the pilgrimages.

``I have told them that my visits to the shrine should not be used as a diplomatic card,″ Koizumi said. ``I have expressed my view that making the decision over whether or not to hold summit meetings based on whether I visit the shrine is not a good thing.″

The shrine visits have been a lightning rod for critics who accuse Japan of failing to fully atone for its military invasions of its neighbors in the 1930s and 40s. The shrine played a leading role in whipping up war fever in the first half of the 20th century.

Tuesday’s visit came a little more than a month before Koizumi is scheduled to step down as prime minister, leaving his successor with Tokyo’s relations with its neighbors at their lowest in decades.

``China and South Korea naturally issued strong protests, and they could even recall ambassadors,″ said Yoshinori Murai, an expert on Southeast Asia at Tokyo’s Sophia University. ``I think this will leave serious problems behind.″

Japanese public opinion is split over the visits. While many feel Japanese leaders should have the right to honor the war dead, others fear alienating Japan’s neighbors. A slew of lawsuits argue that the visits violate the division between the state and religion.

Both Takenori Kanzaki, the leader of Koizumi’s junior coalition partner, the New Komei Party, and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki criticized the pilgrimage. Other critics were the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, a Buddhist organization and a group of relatives of war dead.

Supporters, however, said the visits are justified. War veterans and ultra-rightists thronged the shrine Tuesday, some carrying banners with slogans such as, ``The Greater East Asia War was not a war of aggression.″

The shrine is also working to win more support from the young, many of whom are tired of bearing the war guilt of their elders. Yu Ushiyama, 19, said foreign critics were just using the visits to browbeat Japan.

``We owe our lives to those who are honored here,″ he said at the shrine on Tuesday. ``Even without the Yasukuni issue, China and South Korea would criticize Japan because of other issues.″

The heightened focus on Yasukuni and Japan’s past war responsibility comes as Tokyo is taking a more assertive international diplomatic and military role. It dispatched non-combat troops to Iraq, has increased cooperation with the United States and is campaigning for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Japan has struggled for years to come up with a way of paying homage to the war dead without angering its neighbors. An unknown soldier memorial in Tokyo has never gained the popularity of Yasukuni, and a proposal to establish a separate secular memorial that excludes the war criminals has never gained much support in the government.

The issue was further complicated with the recent release of a memo by an aide to the late Emperor Hirohito _ in whose name Japan’s wars were waged _ stating that he was opposed to the 1978 inclusion of convicted war criminals among the war dead honored at Yasukuni.

It is unclear if relations with China and South Korea will improve when Koizumi leaves.

The front-runner to replace him, hawkish Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, is a supporter of the shrine and has not denied reports that he secretly prayed at Yasukuni in April. He has refused to say whether he will go there as prime minister.

``If there are misunderstandings with China and South Korea, we need to work to remove them,″ Abe told reporters.

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Associated Press reporters Chisaki Watanabe and Kana Inagaki contributed to this report.

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