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Japanese leader's visit to war shrine criticized


TOKYO -- Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to a nationalist war memorial here drew immediate and fierce criticism from other Asian countries yesterday, threatening to isolate Japan in the region and deepen its strained relations with China.

China condemned the visit to the Yasukuni shrine as "a serious provocation" and canceled bilateral talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis that were scheduled for today.

South Korea announced that it would cancel or postpone President Roh Moo Hyun's December trip to Japan.

After months of speculation about the timing of this year's visit, Koizumi fulfilled his promise of praying annually at the memorial. The Shinto shrine, which deifies Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including war criminals responsible for atrocities throughout Asia, is regarded by most Asians as the symbol of unrepentant Japanese militarism.

"Prime Minister Koizumi has to bear the historic responsibility for damaging China-Japan relations," Wang Yi, China's ambassador to Japan, said in a statement.

In Seoul, a presidential spokesman said the South Korean government was no longer planning for a summit meeting in December or one-to-one talks between the two leaders at next month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Pusan.

At a tense summit meeting in Seoul in June, Roh told Koizumi that the visits to Yasukuni lay at the "core" of problems between the two nations. Until early this year, relations between Japan and South Korea had improved enough that two summit meetings had been planned annually, one in each country.

The visit also drew protests from Taiwan and Singapore.

The leaders of the Yasukuni shrine and its museum have long stood at the center of a movement to justify Japan's prewar conduct. Their argument is that Japan tried to liberate Asia from Western powers and was pushed into World War II by the United States, and that war criminals enshrined there were innocent.

As Koizumi has led Japan to adopt a more assertive foreign policy, more politicians and public figures have been trying to justify Japan's past. Their message has been well received in a country where anxieties over a shrinking population, uncertain economic prospects and China's rise have led to an increase in nationalist sentiments.

Koizumi rejected criticism, saying he was merely paying homage to Japan's war dead.

"From a long-term perspective, I believe China will understand," he said. "No foreign government should criticize the way we mourn our war dead."

Koizumi, who arrived at the shrine yesterday in his official car, was flanked by bodyguards and was seen praying in live broadcasts across the nation. He said he visited the shrine as a private citizen.

To play down his visit's significance, Koizumi wore a gray suit, in contrast to the formal wear of previous visits. He refrained from entering the inner shrine and did not follow the Shinto ritual of bowing and clapping.

Koizumi's muted visit appeared to be a concession to growing criticism at home, where most opinion polls find the public opposed to his continued visits to the shrine.

Takenori Kanzaki, leader of the New Komeito Party, the governing party's junior coalition partner, said Koizumi probably took into consideration a ruling last month by the Osaka High Court that his visits violated Japan's constitutional separation of religion and state.

It was perhaps also a concession to Japanese business leaders, who have openly criticized his visits and had dreaded any future ones. Although Japan's political leadership has tended to regard an increasingly powerful China as a threat, its business leaders see it as an opportunity.

Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of Toyota and of Nippon Keidanren, Japan's powerful business association, said the prime minister had given consideration to domestic and international affairs by visiting the shrine as a private person. Both organizations strongly supported Koizumi in last month's general election.

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