IMAGE: Koizumi at shrine
Koji Sasahara  /  AP
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi follows a Shinto priest toward the sanctuary of the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo on Tuesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/15/2006 1:57:40 PM ET 2006-08-15T17:57:40

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi prayed at the Yasukuni war shrine Tuesday to mark Tokyo’s World War II surrender, triggering immediate protests by China and South Korea but cheering his conservative followers.

It was Koizumi’s sixth visit to the shrine since taking office in 2001, but his first on the highly symbolic Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s 1945 defeat. He is the first prime minister to make such a visit since Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985.

The shrine visits have been a lightning rod for critics who accuse Japan of failing to fully atone for its military invasions in the 1930s and 40s. Yasukuni honors Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, including war criminals executed after World War II such as wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Koizumi, who steps down as prime minister next month, defended the visit and criticized China and South Korea for inflating the importance of the Yasukuni issue and refusing to meet him in a summit unless he halted the pilgrimages.

“I go there to remember and reflect on past wars and renew our resolve never to go to war again,” he told reporters. “Today’s peace and prosperity are not just because of those who are alive now, but were built based on those who sacrificed their precious lives.”

The pilgrimage prompted immediate protests from China and South Korea, who consider the visits a sign that the Japanese government does not fully regret its past aggressions.

“This move ... seriously harms the feelings of those victimized by Japanese militarism during World War II and will undermine the political basis for ties between China and Japan,” a statement posted to the Web site of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

White House declines to join criticism
The White House declined to join in criticism of Koizumi’s visit to the shrine, calling it an internal Japanese matter.

White House spokesman Dana Perino called Koizumi’s visit to the shrine an “internal Japanese matter that we’re not going to weigh in on.”

Asked about criticism of the move by China and South Korea, Perino said: “We understand that there are historical, complex issues in Asia and we would hope that the region would be able to work together cooperatively to address those.”

Bush and Koizumi have developed a close working relationship and personal friendship. Bush took Koizumi to Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion June 30 to celebrate the Japanese leader’s love of the late singer’s music.

Critics within
The visit also drew fire from internal critics. Both Takenori Kanzaki, the leader of Koizumi’s junior coalition partner, the New Komei Party, and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki criticized the pilgrimage.

Supporters, however, said the visits are an internal affair. War veterans and ultra-rightists thronged the shrine Tuesday, some carrying banners with slogans such as, “The Great East Asia War was not a war of aggression.”

Koizumi has long argued that he makes the annual pilgrimage to honor the souls of fallen soldiers and to pray for peace, not to honor Japanese imperialism.

But opponents who consider the shrine a glorification of Japan’s past militarism have been mounting protests in recent days to urge Koizumi to stay away and call on Tokyo to more fully atone for its pre-1945 aggression.

Longtime symbol of militarism
Yasukuni, a shrine in Japan’s native Shinto religion, which reveres the emperor as its head priest, has long been a symbol of Japanese imperialism. It played a high-profile role in promoting wartime fervor, and even today it hosts a museum that seeks to justify Japan’s invasions of its neighbors.

Opponents staged candlelight vigils and marches in the days before the war anniversary, drawing demonstrators from Taiwan, South Korea and all over Japan.

In Japan, the visits have split opinion down the middle.

Supporters say Koizumi has the right to honor those who died for the country, while China and South Korea have no business interfering in Japan’s internal affairs.

Opponents, however, have urged Koizumi not to antagonize Japan’s neighbors. Some have filed lawsuits against the visits, saying they violate the constitutional division of religion and state. One such suit was recently rejected by the Supreme Court.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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