BOWING to Asian anger, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi moves up war shrine visit

Monday, August 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ Bowing to anger from Asian neighbors, Japan's prime minister moved up a visit to a controversial war shrine to Monday instead of on the anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender.

But the move did little to ease outrage in China and South Korea, which said the visit to what they view as a monument to militarism caused ``unspeakable damage'' to relations.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was led to the shrine's altar by a silk-clad priest, had repeatedly said since taking office in April that he would like to visit Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine on Wednesday's anniversary of the 1945 surrender.

He said Monday he decided to speed up the visit because of outrage expressed from Japan's neighbors and concern among members of his own ruling coalition.

To soothe fears among some Japanese that official visits violate the separation of religion and state, Koizumi also did not undergo traditional Shinto purification rituals at the altar.

``I want to express my deepest condolences to all the people who sacrificed their lives in the war,'' he said in a statement just before the visit. ``Our country should never again walk the path to war.''

He said he was confident his decision to visit the shrine would ``be understood by the Japanese and by our neighboring nations'' and said he wants to meet with Asian leaders to discuss relations.

Little understanding was voiced Monday, however.

``The Chinese side's standpoint on this issue hasn't changed,'' China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. ``We oppose Japanese leaders' visiting this shrine that has memorial tablets to Class A war criminals.''

In South Korea, 20 men draped in national flags chopped off a finger to protest Japanese textbooks they believe gloss over atrocities by Japanese soldiers during World War II. The protesters said they would mail the severed fingers to the Japanese embassy and threatened to disembowel themselves if Koizumi does not apologize for the shrine visit.

Officials in South Korea, a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945, also protested the visit.

``We cannot but express regret over the fact that the Japanese prime minister paid respect to war criminals who obstructed world peace and caused unspeakable damage to neighboring countries,'' the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Yasukuni shrine is not merely for those who died in World War II _ the souls worshipped there include virtually all Japanese war dead dating back to the late 1800s.

But politicians' visits to the shrine, part of Japan's Shinto religion, are particularly controversial because war criminals _ including executed former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who led Japan during World War II _ are among the 2.5 million Japanese soldiers honored there.

After the visit, Koizumi said he paid his respects to all war dead ``not to any particular individual.''

The last prime minister to go on the anniversary was Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto went to Yasukuni on his birthday in July 1996, but the furor abroad was so intense he canceled subsequent visits while in office.

Because of such anger, Taku Yamasaki, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, had urged Koizumi to pay his respects at Yasukuni before Wednesday to tone down the symbolism of the visit.

``I believe he made an excellent and difficult decision,'' Yamasaki said Monday.

Leaders of the New Komei Party, which is one of three parties in Koizumi's ruling coalition, had also expressed their displeasure with the shrine visit. The party is backed mainly by a Buddhist group.

But others in Koizumi's administration countered that the visit is only meaningful if conducted on the anniversary, and that changing the date would be an insult to the veterans and their survivors.

In a weekend survey by NTV, a major television network, nearly half of the people polled supported Koizumi visiting the shrine on the anniversary, with 40 against the idea, according to results announced Monday.

``I think it's okay for him to visit,'' said Yoshiko Uematsu, a 68-year-old housewife. ``But he had to take many things into account.''