Japanese prime minister visits controversial war shrine

Sunday, April 21st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid a surprise visit Sunday to a controversial shrine devoted to Japan's war dead, a move that immediately triggered anger in neighboring South Korea.

Koizumi wore a black tie and tails as he followed a Shinto priest through the cypress pillars of Yasukuni shrine, a monument of Japan's indigenous religion and a magnet for nationalists who glorify the emperor.

The formal attire, similar to clothing worn when prime ministers officially accede to power, is likely to alarm Asian nations with bad memories of Japanese imperialism.

Regional observers attach significance to whether visits to the shrine by cabinet officials are made in a public or private capacity _ and Koizumi made no effort to disguise that he went as the nation's leader.

``My visit was as Japan's prime minister,'' he told reporters after the visit. ``The purpose...was to pay respect to those who left behind family and sacrificed their lives for the nation.''

However, in a gesture likely to placate some bitterness over the visit, Koizumi said he would not visit Yasukuni in August _ the symbolically important period when Japan marks its surrender in World War II.

``There's only one visit a year,'' Koizumi said.

Koizumi's trip last August to the shrine, where convicted war criminals are worshipped, infuriated South Korea, China and other Asian countries that suffered from Japanese militarism.

During the August visit, Koizumi had refused to specify if he was going in an official or private capacity.

Sunday's visit may be a particular affront to South Korea as it comes little more than a month before the two nations co-host the soccer World Cup. The sporting event has been touted as an opportunity for the two historical rivals to bury animosities.

``This proves that Japan doesn't want friendly relations with South Korea,'' said Kim Yu-seok, a 33-year-old office worker.

``From now on, you should say that the World Cup is divided, not shared, by two countries.''

Japan imposed a brutal four decade colonial rule over Korea in the first half of the 20th century. Tokyo's unwillingness to make amends has been a major obstacle to closer ties.

It was not immediately clear why Koizumi chose Sunday to visit the shrine.

The prime minister has been a staunch supporter of official visits to the shrine, which honors about 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including executed criminals such as war-era Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Yasukuni Shrine was used by the government during the war to promote nationalism and the conquest of Asia.