Japanese Prime Minister Still Pledges to Visit Controversial War Shrine

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Tuesday his pledge to visit a Tokyo war shrine on the anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender next week is still valid, strongly suggesting he again will risk angering China and South Korea by worshipping at the controversial memorial.

Yasukuni Shrine — which honors Japan's war dead, including World War II war criminals — is at the center of a diplomatic feud between Tokyo and its neighbors, who consider the shrine a glorification of the country's militarist past.

"My pledge is still valid," Koizumi said late Tuesday in response to a question on whether he would keep a campaign promise he made in 2001 that he would visit Yasukuni on the anniversary of Japan's surrender on Aug. 15 as prime minister.

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Koizumi has worshipped at the shrine five times since then, the last time in October, but never on Aug. 15 — something that many would see as a slap at Seoul and Beijing.

China has refused to hold top-level talks with Japan since 2001 in protest, and Koizumi's repeated visits have also contributed to a steep deterioration in ties with Seoul.

Koizumi argues that he makes the visits to pray for peace, despite the fact that men who planned and executed Japan's imperialist conquests are among those honored there as deities. The shrine also played a high-profile role in stirring up war fever in the 1930s and '40s.

The premier's remarks came after Foreign Minister Taro Aso proposed Tuesday to make Yasukuni a secular memorial to avoid any possibility that official visits would violate the constitutional division of religion and state.

"Yasukuni, first of all, needs to become a nonreligious facility," he wrote in the Asahi newspaper. "So long as there is even a bit of doubt in light of the separation of state and religion, constant visits by imperial family members and prime ministers and other ministers will not be possible."

Aso said that the question of who would be honored at the proposed shrine would be decided by Parliament.

The shrine was expected to come up in talks this week between Japanese officials and South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, who was in Tokyo. Aso started meetings with Ban late Wednesday.

Ban called on Japan to remove "impediments" to their nations' relations, an official said — an apparent reference to Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni.

"It is important impediments be removed if we are to improve bilateral relations," Ban Ki-moon was quoted as telling Aso by Foreign Ministry official Shigeo Yamada.

Seoul and Beijing have strongly protested Koizumi's repeated visits.

Yasukuni has also become a central issue in the race to replace Koizumi when he steps down in September.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, a shrine supporter and front-runner in the race, reportedly made a secret shrine visit in April but has refused to confirm those reports or say whether he would go again as prime minister.

He defended Koizumi's actions Tuesday, calling the premier's decision whether or not to visit a matter of religious freedom.

"Prime Minister Koizumi will decide for himself whether he will visit the shrine [on the 15th], within the constitutional right to freedom of religion," Abe told reporters.

Public broadcaster NHK reported Tuesday that two ministers have so far expressed their intention to visit Yasukuni on Aug. 15 — Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa and Tetsuo Kutsukake, minister of state for disaster management.

Kyodo News agency quoted Kutsukake as saying he would make the visit "to pray for those who sacrificed their precious lives for the country and at the same time to pledge Japan will never go to war again."

North Korea, meanwhile, criticized Abe's reported visit to Yasukuni, saying it was "an irresponsible act that did not take foreign relations into consideration," according to an official Pyongyang Broadcasting Service transmission monitored by Tokyo's Radiopress news agency.