October 17, 2005

Japan tries to contain PM shrine visit fallout

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan sought on Tuesday to minimize the
diplomatic fallout from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's
visit to a Tokyo war shrine, which has outraged China and South
Korea and upset domestic critics.

Japan's already chilly relations with its neighbors could
go into a deep freeze following Koizumi's pilgrimage on Monday
to the Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals convicted by an
Allied tribunal are honored along with 2.5 million war dead.

"Mr Koizumi, who is prime minister, paid his respects at
Yasukuni as one Japanese citizen," Defense Minister Yoshinori
Ohno told reporters on Tuesday. "It is understandable that he
went to mourn those who gave their lives for their country and
to promise never to go to war again.

"But there remains the problem of how to deal with ties
with neighboring countries, especially China and South Korea,"
Ohno added. "We must strive to improve relations with China and
South Korea with a forward-looking view."

On Tuesday, some 200 Japanese lawmakers also paid their
respects at Yasukuni, a spokesman for the shrine said.

The parliamentarians are members of a group that usually
visits the Yasukuni shrine during spring and autumn festivals
such as the one taking place this week.

Later in the day, more than 100 people gathered in front of
the prime minister's office to protest.

Koizumi's latest visit to the shrine was his fifth since he
took office in 2001 after pledging to pay his respects there as
prime minister. In an effort to stress the private nature of
the pilgrimage, he wore a business suit rather than traditional
Japanese garb or a morning suit as in the past, used the public
entrance and did not enter an inner shrine.

But China and South Korea, where bitter memories of Japan's
wartime atrocities run deep, protested angrily and swiftly.


On Tuesday, the Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily
newspaper condemned the visit as a "provocation to human
conscience and international justice," although news of China's
second manned spaceflight dominated the media.

A meeting tentatively planned for later this week between
Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and Chinese Foreign
Minister Li Zhaoxing to discuss a possible Sino-Japanese
leaders' summit is now in doubt, while a South Korean
presidential aide said on Monday that President Roh Moo-hyun
was unlikely to meet Koizumi for their semi-annual summit
meeting this year.

Machimura told reporters, however, that the diplomatic
schedule should not be affected.

"We will seek (the two countries') understanding through
various channels," Machimura said. "I think that various
scheduled meetings should take place as planned."

Koizumi, who first pledged to make the pilgrimages when he
was running for ruling party president in 2001, insists he pays
homage at Yasukuni not to glorify war but to pray for peace.

Many saw his original promise as aimed at gaining support
from a powerful veterans' group.

But the decision to repeat the visits despite the
diplomatic fallout also reflects the sort of unwavering stance
that many voters have welcomed as a sign of strong leadership.
Koizumi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide
victory in general elections last month.

"As prime minister, Koizumi apparently did not want to
yield to pressure from China and forgo the visit," said an
editorial in the conservative Yomiuri newspaper titled
"Yasukuni visit needs fuller explanation."

The Japanese public is sharply divided over Yasukuni, and
courts have handed down conflicting rulings over whether the
prime minister's visits to the Shinto shrine violate the
constitutional separation of religion and state.

Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said he backed Koizumi's
visits and expressed hope that China would react as an "adult,"
Kyodo news agency reported. The two countries are also arguing
over rights to gas fields in the East China Sea, and Tokyo has
proposed another round of discussions be held later this month.

Japanese business executives are worried the diplomatic
strains will hurt economic relations, especially between China
and Japan, which have annual trade worth about $212 billion.

"Japan's relations with China and South Korea are the most
important bilateral ties after those with the United States,
and a deterioration is a minus for Japan's national interests,"
said an editorial in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun financial daily.

Tokyo share prices, however, were little affected on

(Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno)