TOKYO – Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) started the new year by visiting a shrine honoring Japan's war dead Thursday, a decision that brought a swift rebuke from China and South Korea which see it as a tribute to Tokyo's militaristic past.
Koizumi's annual visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine (search) outrage countries in Asia that Japan invaded and brutally occupied last century.
This year's visit comes at a touchy time as Japan prepares to send military personnel to assist humanitarian efforts in the U.S.-led reconstruction of Iraq, in what would be its largest military deployment abroad since World War II.
The visit also tests Japan's relations with other countries, including China and South Korea, during a diplomatic drive to prod North Korea to give up its nuclear programs.
Koizumi arrived at the throne amid a throng of New Year's revelers and climbed the steps of Yasukuni shrine led by a white-robed Shinto priest.
Koizumi, who is known for hawkish views and his support of policy to bolster Japan's military, said he had decided on the visit to pray for peace.
"I went with various feelings, including wishes for Japan's peace and prosperity," Koizumi told reporters. "Japan does not rest solely upon the efforts of people living now ... Japan stands upon the sacrifices of others in the past."
Yasukuni shrine, located near the Imperial Palace, honors about 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including executed criminals such as war-era Prime Minister Hideki Tojo (search). It was Koizumi's fourth visit there since he became prime minister in April 2001, and his first since January last year.
China protested almost immediately and urged Tokyo to stop taking actions that hurt the countries' relations.
"The Chinese side expressed strong indignation," state-run Xinhua News Agency said, adding that Koizumi "ignores opposition from the Chinese people and Asian people and obstinately insists on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine."
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi later summoned Japan's charge d'affaires to Beijing, Chikahito Harada, to voice "strong indignation" over the visit, Xinhua said.
South Korea expressed regret. "We cannot but feel enraged and concerned that our people's feeling have once again been hurt again," South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The surprise visit on New Year's Day was widely viewed as an appeal to conservative sentiment at a time when Koizumi finds himself before a public deeply divided about the military deployment and criticized that he is rashly placing Japanese lives at risk.
"This trip was directed domestically," said Hitoshi Abe, professor of political science at Housou University (search) near Tokyo. "Shrine visits are a Japanese tradition. Koizumi is appealing to those sentiments. If you think about the timing, it comes right before the troops go to Iraq."
Tokyo plans to send about 1,000 non-combat military personnel to Iraq to repair war-shattered infrastructure in southern Iraq shortly.
The visit also tests relations at a delicate stage in diplomatic efforts to push North Korea to hold a second round of nuclear talks. The first one held in Beijing in August ended without much progress.