TOKYO – TOKYO (AP) — French nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen and other European right-wing politicians paid a visit Saturday to a Japanese shrine that has drawn outrage for honoring war criminals.
Le Pen, leader of the far-right French National Front and Adam Walker of the British National Party said they were making the visit, which comes a day ahead of the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, to pay respect to those who died in war.
"What counts is the will that we had to honor those who have fallen for defending their country, whether they are Japanese, or any soldiers of the world, we have the same respect for them," Le Pen told reporters.
The visit to Yasukuni, an ornate Shinto shrine in downtown Tokyo, was arranged by the International Conference of Patriotic Organisations, which brought together right-wing parties from eight European countries with members of a Japanese ultranationalist group called the Issuikai.
Yasukuni honors Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals. Pacifists and victims of Japanese aggression, such as China and the Koreas, say it glorifies Japan's past militarism.
The visit by Le Pen and others may also anger some former prisoners of war in those countries being represented by the right-wing groups.
Tens of thousands of British, Dutch and other European soldiers and civilians were captured by the Japanese Imperial Army as they swept across Europe's former Asian colonies at the beginning of World War II. Thousands were executed, tortured and starved to death in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
When asked about his visit, Walker told Associated Press Television News: "I'm honoring the dead. I am here to honor the dead — heroes that have died for their country."
In the past, visits to Yasukuni by Japanese politicians have provoked outrage from China, Korea and neighboring Asian countries.
Some lawmakers, as well as hundreds of regular Japanese whose relatives and friends died as soldiers in World War II, are expected to visit Yasukuni Sunday to mark the end of World War II.
But Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his ministers are expected to shun the visit — the first time all members of a Cabinet will stay away.
Kan's liberal Democratic Party defeated the long-reigning conservative Liberal Democrats for the first time in decades in last year's parliamentary elections.
Earlier this week, Kan apologized to South Korea for its colonial rule and the suffering Japan caused the Korean people, and expressed hopes for a partnership.
Japanese leaders have repeatedly apologized for wartime aggression against its Asian neighbors, including a 1995 apology from a leftist-leaning prime minister that marked the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.