A key ally of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi warned the leader yesterday not to visit a shrine honoring war criminals, saying it would further undermine Japan's fragile ruling coalition as it heads into dicey nationwide elections.
The caution came as a former Japanese premier and the country's current economy and trade minister worshipped at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine amid mounting speculation Koizumi will also pray there as early as today to mark the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, a move almost certain to enrage China and South Korea.
Further visits will only damage ties between Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party and its ruling coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, especially in the run up to nationwide ballots on Sept. 11, New Komeito head Takenori Kanzaki warned Sunday.
"The LDP and New Komeito increasingly feel we should go for the majority. But if Koizumi goes, it will dampen that spirit. That's why I think he shouldn't go," Kanzaki said on TV Asahi's Sunday Project news talk show. "It can't have good results for our campaign coordination."
Yasukuni honors Japan's 2.4 million military deaths in wars from the late 1800s until 1945. But the shrine also lists among its "deities" the names of executed World War II criminals, such as wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, and many in Asia consider this a glorification of Tokyo's imperialist past.
Koizumi has pledged to make annual visits to the shrine and has been there four times since becoming prime minister in April 2001. His last visit was in January 2004, and many Japanese officials, including Cabinet members, were expected to pay respects Monday.
Yesterday, Economy and Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa became the first Cabinet member to bow his head at the cypres-wood shrine, according to Japan's Kyodo News agency. Earlier in the day, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto also visited.
Among the Cabinet members expected to visit today are Environment Minister Yuriko Koike and Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hidehisa Otsuji, Kyodo said.
While the visits anger Chinese and South Koreans, the Japanese are divided. A newspaper poll in June showed 52 percent of respondents opposed Koizumi's visits, while 36 percent supported them.
Taku Yamasaki, former vice president of the Liberal Democratic Party, said Sunday he doesn't think Koizumi will visit on Monday to commemorate the war's end, but wasn't sure whether the prime minister would fulfill his pledge by visiting before year's end.
"More and more people are realizing the importance of good diplomatic relations with our neighboring countries," Yamasaki said. "As a long-term friend of the prime minister's, I don't think he will go tomorrow."