TOKYO – Inflaming already tense relations with China, Japanese lawmakers said Tuesday they plan to visit a shrine that critics say glorifies their country's militarist past, and a Tokyo court ruled against Chinese victims of Japanese wartime atrocities.
Such developments would ordinarily infuriate the Chinese, but in the current atmosphere they could be explosive.
Anti-Japanese demonstrations involving tens of thousands of sometimes violent protesters have erupted in several Chinese cities in recent weeks over a government-approved Japanese textbook that critics say whitewashes the country's militaristic atrocities.
The protesters smashed windows of Japan's diplomatic missions in Beijing and Shanghai and damaged Japanese restaurants. They also oppose Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council (search).
Hoping to ease tensions, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) and Chinese President Hu Jintao (search) were arranging for a possible meeting this weekend in Indonesia, where both will be attending the Asia-Africa summit.
But Koizumi, speaking to reporters in Tokyo, cautioned: "if it's going to be the exchange of harsh words, it's better not to meet."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search), who also will attend the summit, urged the Chinese and Japanese leaders to talk there.
"They have lots of relationship on all fronts — political, economic and social — and I hope those important aspects of their relationship will encourage them to resolve their differences," Annan said.
But Japan showed no sign of backing off Tuesday.
Nationalist lawmakers, headed by a former defense minister, announced plans to pay their respects to Japan's war dead on Friday, an aide to lawmaker Yasu Kano said on condition of anonymity.
He said the visit to Yasukuni Shrine (search), which honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, was planned well in advance and had nothing to do with the anti-Japanese riots rocking China.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang noted that the dead honored at Yasukuni include executed war criminals, whom he called the "planners and conspirators" of World War II.
"We hope the Japanese leaders could fully respect the people in the victimized countries in Asia, including the Chinese people," Qin said at a regular news briefing. He called on Japanese leaders to "refrain from doing anything that might harm the feelings of Asian people."
Also infuriating China, a Tokyo court rejected demands to compensate Chinese victims of atrocities committed by Japan's military in the 1930s and 40s, including the use of biological weapons.
Historians estimate that the military unit that took part in wartime germ experiments may have killed as many as 250,000 people — including vivisections of Chinese prisoners.
But the Tokyo High Court on Tuesday upheld a 1999 lower court ruling that international law barred foreign citizens from seeking compensation from the Japanese government for wartime actions.
China responded by calling on Japan to responsibly handle its legacy of germ warfare.
"We hope the Japanese side will approach this issue in a responsible manner and handle this appropriately," said Qin, though he would not say what outcome China wants.
The rhetoric and demonstrations have raised worries about the potential effect on the economic relationship between Asia's two biggest economies, which are linked by billions of dollars in trade and investment.
The benchmark Nikkei Stock Average plunged 3.8 percent Monday to end at its lowest point since Dec. 16, although share prices rebounded Tuesday on bargain-hunting.
Japanese officials also expressed worry over a plunge in travel to China. All Nippon Airways Co. said it expected 12,000 passengers to cancel trips to China in April, while Japan Airlines said 5,500 travelers booked for China in April and May had already canceled.
Japan's Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said he doubted China could be trusted as a law-abiding nation.
China has refused to apologize for the anti-Japanese riots.
"It is only natural for anyone to offer an apology and compensation if he or she damages other people's property," he said Tuesday. "When there is no response despite our request, we cannot help but doubt (China's) reliability as a state governed by the law."
Meanwhile, in a sudden shift, Chinese nationalist Web sites that have encouraged sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests urged supporters on Tuesday not to target Japanese citizens.
"We oppose the Japanese right-wingers and the politicians that support them, not the Japanese people," said a statement on the Web site 9-18.com, which earlier had publicized details of protest plans.
"Friendly Japanese people are our friends and brothers in arms," the statement said. The site's name refers to the date of the Sept. 19, 1931, start of Japan's invasion of China.