Japan's leader angers China, S. Korea with war shrine visit

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

TOKYO -- China and South Korea condemned Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit Tuesday to a shrine honoring Japan's war dead -- including its war criminals -- saying it glorified Japan's brutal military occupation of other countries decades ago.

The controversy threatened to set back Japan's delicate diplomatic campaign to peacefully resolve the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula, one of its former conquests.

Japanese conservatives welcomed the visit. But it enraged officials in Beijing and Seoul, who called on the Japanese leader to halt his annual visits to Yasukuni shrine, a monument to Japan's indigenous Shinto religion. The government used Shinto before and during World War II to stir nationalism and promote the conquest of Asia.

The Tokyo shrine honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including convicted war criminals such as executed Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Both North and South Korea, as well as other neighboring countries, say the Yasukuni shrine glorifies Japan's militaristic past.

Koizumi said he was making the visit, his third since becoming prime minister in April 2001, to pray for peace.

"It's the new year, and I'm going to pay my respects with a fresh perspective, to think about peace and hope we will never have war again," he told reporters. He said he wants to visit the shrine once a year.

Known for hawkish views and support of policies giving Japan's military broader powers, Koizumi said he hoped his visit wouldn't affect Japan's close ties with its neighbors.

Memories still fresh

But criticism was scathing across Asia, where memories of Japan's brutal invasions remain fresh.

China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said such visits salute Japan's military past and its atrocities in China during the 1930s and 1940s. In Tokyo, Chinese Ambassador to Japan, Wu Dawei, lodged a formal complaint at Japan's Foreign Ministry.

"It hurts the feelings of the Chinese people and other Asian countries," Zhang said. "We urge the Japanese government to treat seriously the issue with the correct attitude."

The South Korean government expressed "rage and great disappointment" over the visit.

"Our government cannot understand the logic of those who say they pray for peace, but pay tribute to war criminals who destroyed peace," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Seok Dong-yun in Seoul.

In Hong Kong, activist Lo Chau called the Japanese prime minister a "hypocrite" for seeking peace in the region while stirring controversy.

Koizumi's visit was announced just before he left his official residence. He followed a white-robed Shinto priest into the shrine, where he stayed for several minutes.

Analysts said politics was likely the driving factor behind Koizumi making the visit earlier than usual this year.

"Koizumi probably wanted to make sure his visit happened before the changeover of leadership in China and South Korea," said Susumu Takahashi, a professor of political science at Tokyo University.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: