TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search), in his first public address of the year Tuesday, vowed to do his utmost to help relief and rebuilding efforts for victims of the earthquake-caused tsunami (search) in Southeast Asia.
"As a member of Asia, we would like to do our best to help in the reconstruction," Koizumi told reporters at a nationally televised New Year's press conference.
Japan (search) has been the recipient of aid during its own natural disasters and has an obligation to help the region recover from the "unprecedented damage" caused by the quake and tsunami, he said.
Over the weekend, Japan pledged up to US$500 million (euro370 million) in grant aid for tsunami disaster relief, making the country the largest single donor to victims of the catastrophe that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and other nations, likely killing 150,000 people. Japanese were also victims, and 21 Japanese have been confirmed dead.
Koizumi departs Wednesday for a tsunami aid conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, where Asian leaders will discuss how to prevent a repeat of such a disaster.
Japan has one of the world's most advanced networks of fiber-optic sensors, which can warn of deadly seismic waves within two minutes of a quake. Koizumi has vowed technical help in building such a warning system in the Indian Ocean region — something experts say could have saved thousands of lives.
On the economy, Koizumi said he will push forward with his administration's reform efforts, which are based on privatizing public sectors, to keep the recovery going in the world's second largest economy.
"This year is going to be a very tough year," he said, adding that hard times are far from over despite the recently emerging signs of a rebound.
In the past couple of years, Japan has gradually emerged from a decade-long stagnation mainly on the back of growing exports to Asia and the United States.
"The economy is at a crucial juncture," he said, but later added that he believed Japan was facing a momentous opportunity to promote its economy, particularly with China.
Many here have warily watched the growing economic and military might of Japan's Asian rival.
Koizumi said Japan should not see China's growth as a threat but rather as an opportunity for increased trade.
Asked about his annual visits to a Tokyo war shrine that have riled China, Koizumi said that he did not see the issue as a major thorn in relations.
"Our countries also share a long history of goodwill," he said. "I don't think that visiting Yasukuni Shrine is a problem."
Yasukuni honors about 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including convicted war criminals, and many critics say it glorifies Japan's militarist past. Koizumi has argued it is simply a way for him to pay respect to the country's war dead.
Koizumi has said he would not visit the shrine during the New Year period as he did last year. But Beijing has called his annual pilgrimages "the crux" of difficulties between the two countries and urged him to drop them entirely.
Koizumi said at the news conference that he would continue his efforts to gain Beijing's understanding of his visits.