Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi prayed yesterday at a shrine honoring war dead and war criminals on the emotionally charged anniversary of Japan's World War II defeat, triggering outrage among neighbors which suffered brutal occupation.
Koizumi, who steps down next month, became the first prime minister in 21 years to visit the Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, when veterans and nationalists congregate at the site associated with Japan's militaristic past.
Under light rain that intensified as he arrived, Koizumi, wearing a tuxedo jacket with coat-tails and a tie, prayed for 10 minutes inside the shrine in central Tokyo, escorted by a Shinto priest in a white and yellow robe.
China and South Korea summoned Japanese ambassadors to protest. But Koizumi, who has built a steadily more assertive Japan during his five-year tenure, promptly hit back that their criticism was "immature."
"People criticizing me are telling me not to do anything to annoy China and South Korea. But I don't think that's necessarily right," Koizumi told reporters.
"If [President George W.] Bush of the US tells me not to go, would I stop? No, I would still go even then. But President Bush would not say anything so immature," said Koizumi, one of Bush's closest allies.
The shrine -- which honors 2.5 million war dead and 14 top war criminals from World War II -- was a spiritual pillar during the war, when kamikaze pilots would tell one another, "See you at Yasukuni."
Koizumi has visited the shrine once a year since taking office in 2001, but he has never visited on Aug. 15, the date when the late Emperor Hirohito surrendered in 1945.
"Even if I avoided Aug. 15, there are always some forces and some people who criticize me and try to bring up this issue," Koizumi said. "As the difference is the same no matter when I go, I think today is an appropriate day."
China immediately lodged a strong protest over his pilgrimage, with the foreign ministry saying the visit "challenges international justice and tramples the conscience of mankind." Several dozen Chinese nationalists also rallied outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing.
South Korea expressed "deep disappointment and anger" over Koizumi's pilgrimage on the day it calls "Liberation Day." Some 3,000 activists gathered near the Japanese embassy, where veterans pounded an effigy of Koizumi with clubs.
North Korea joined the protests, calling Japan "the sworn enemy of the Korean people."
Taiwan and Singapore, which were also occupied by Japan, offered milder criticism and there were public protests in Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Koizumi said he was honoring all war dead and not necessarily the war criminals such as hanged prime minister Hideki Tojo, who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He later attended a secular ceremony alongside Hirohito's son, Emperor Akihito. There, Koizumi offered his latest apology for the "huge damage and suffering" Japan inflicted on Asian nations in the 20th century.
At Yasukuni Shrine several thousand people, including dozens of right-wing activists in wartime military fatigues, waved Japanese flags as Koizumi visited.
"Mr Koizumi, thank you!" supporters shouted as he left.
Hundreds of police kept a close eye on Koizumi as 15 helicopters flew overhead.