Japan's prime minister yesterday accused Chinese and South Korean leaders of turning a spiritual issue into a diplomatic one by refusing to meet him one-on-one because of his visits to a war shrine honoring Japanese war dead.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japanese veterans including convicted war criminals from World War II, have outraged countries that suffered under Japanese wartime atrocities.
But Koizumi said he was baffled by Chinese and South Korean leaders turning down meetings with him because of the visits, saying he has the right to express respect to a country's war dead, and that the Yasukuni visits merely show his resolve to never wage war again.
"I do not understand why foreign governments interfere with a spiritual issue and try to turn it into a diplomatic issue," he said in a nationally televised news conference marking the start of the new year.
Koizumi reiterated his view that the visits were a matter of an individual's freedom of spirit and thought, making it hard to understand criticism of them.
South Korea responded quickly, urging japan to heed its neighbors' complaints.
"The key to the South Korea-Japan problem and maintaining cooperative relationships among nations in the region is for Japan's government to try to win trust and respect from related countries with a correct stance on the perception of history," Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said yesterday at a regular news briefing.
Koizumi has continued his annual visits to the shrine despite demands from China and South Korea that he stop. The two countries suffered under Japan's World War II-era military atrocities and brutal colonial rule.
He said it was up to Beijing and Seoul to resume top-level contacts with Japan.
"I have never tried to close dialogue with China and South Korea. The door remains open," he said. "Every nation has differences of opinion with others, and we should not close down dialogue just because of one problem."
Koizumi said that economic and personal exchanges are flourishing between Japan and the other two countries, and that he wants to continue efforts to promote good ties despite the friction.
Koizumi also reaffirmed his belief that Tokyo's defense relations with Washington are more critical than its ties with other nations.
"The United States is the only nation in the world that sees an attack on Japan as an attack on itself," he said.
However, he denied he was suggesting that Japan's relations with the US are the only ones that matter.