October 16, 2005

Koizumi visits war shrine, S.Korea lodges protest

By Linda Sieg and George Nishiyama

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi
paid homage on Monday at a shrine for war dead seen by critics
as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, drawing a swift protest
from South Korea and certain to outrage China as well.

Japan's relations with its neighbors have already chilled
because of Koizumi's annual visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine,
where war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal are honored
along with the nation's 2.5 million war dead.

Koizumi -- clad in a dark suit rather than the traditional
Japanese garb he has worn on some past visits -- bowed, put his
hands together in prayer and stood silently in front of an
outer shrine for a moment before striding back to his car in
front of a crowd that had gathered in a drizzling rain.

Koizumi did not enter an inner shrine as he has in the past
and made no remarks. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda
told reporters the visit was made in a private capacity.

Japanese media said the low key atmosphere appeared to be
an attempt to stress its private nature and mute the expected
backlash from China and South Korea as well as domestic

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, however, swiftly
summoned Japanese ambassador Shotaro Oshima to complain.

"We strongly protest the visit to Yasukuni shrine despite
our request and strongly urge that it is not repeated," Ban

Japanese business executives have been worried that the
strain in diplomatic ties will hurt burgeoning economic
relations between China and Japan especially.

Japan and China have annual trade of about $212 billion,
and Japanese exports to China account for some 13 percent of
Japan's global exports, second only to 22 percent to the United

Tokyo stock market investors, recalling a slide in share
prices after anti-Japanese protests in China in April, were
wary of the possible fallout from Koizumi's visit to the

Japan and China are trying to arrange talks in Beijing
between Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and his
Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, to discuss a possible
leaders' summit later this year, media have reported. It was
not clear how the Yasukuni visit would affect those

Koizumi has repeatedly said he visits Yasukuni to pray for
peace and honor the war dead, not to glorify militarism.


Koizumi has avoided visiting the shrine on August 15, the
anniversary of Japan's 1945 surrender that ended World War Two
and an emotive date in the region, but his visits on other
occasions have nonetheless infuriated China and other

"It's fine for the prime minister to stick to his beliefs,
but given his status as the Japanese leader he should think
about relations between countries and the people's feelings,"
said Choi Young-soo, 44, a South Korean on a sightseeing trip
to the shrine. "He should not stir up ill feelings."

Bitter memories of Japan's 1910-1945 colonization run deep
in North and South Korea, while China has not forgotten Tokyo's
invasion and occupation before and during World War Two.

Frosty relations between China and Japan hit their lowest
level in decades in April, when thousands of Chinese took to
the streets in sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests.

After the April protests, Tokyo's Nikkei share average slid
below the 11,000 mark for the first time this year.

The benchmark, which has since recovered, finished the
morning session nearly flat at 13,438.34.

Despite a huge victory for Koizumi's ruling Liberal
Democratic Party in a general election last month, Japan's
public is divided over the Yasukuni visits.

Courts have given conflicting rulings on whether they
violate the constitutional separation of religion and state.

Takenori Kanzaki, the leader of LDP coalition partner New
Komeito -- a Buddhist-backed party -- told reporters Koizumi's
visit was extremely regrettable, Kyodo news agency reported.

But Hiroki Kanematsu, a 20-year-old law student who went to
Yasukuni to watch Koizumi, said he backed the prime minister's
stance. "Since he started making the visits, he should not stop
just because of what China says."

Another student, Ai Yamaguchi, took a different view.

"It would be fine for him to go as an individual, but he is
the prime minister, so it is not good," she said.

"We should seek good ties with China and South Korea
because they are our close neighbors."

Talks between China and Japan aimed at resolving a row over
rights to natural gas resources in the East China Sea have made
little progress, and another round is expected later this

Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi flew to
Beijing last week for talks with his Chinese counterpart, Dai
Bingguo, to try to mend ties. They had a first round of talks
on Saturday but Dai did not show up on Sunday, the Nihon Keizai
newspaper reported. The paper said no explanation was given.

(Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno in Tokyo and Jack Kim
in Seoul)