Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi yesterday defended his visits to a Tokyo war shrine, telling parliament that only two countries -- China and South Korea -- have complained about them.
Koizumi has faced regular criticism for worshipping at five visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead. The shrine also honors executed war criminals, and Japan's neighbors have objected to the visits.
Under questioning in parliament, the prime minister rejected criticism that his visits had damaged Japan's standing in the world.
"I made my visits as prime minister, but I am also an individual and the constitution guarantees freedom of thought," Koizumi said.
"China and South Korea are the only countries that criticize my visits," he continued.
"No [other] prime ministers criticized my visits. President Bush never criticized the visits. Japan has reflected on the war and made progress peacefully," he said.
However, China and South Korea have been highly critical of the visits, which they see as glorifying Japan's militarist past. Chinese anger over the visits have played a role in blocking meetings between Koizumi and Chinese leaders in recent months.
"Under Junichiro Koizumi's premiership, Japan's diplomatic isolation ... has become serious," said Tadayoshi Ichida, of the Japan Communist Party. "The reason is because the prime minister has visited the Yasukuni shrine for the fifth consecutive year."
Koizumi has made annual visits to Yasukuni since taking office in 2001, most recently in October.
The shrine honors 2.5 million war dead and hosts a museum that displays a sympathetic view of Tokyo's conquests in East Asia from the late 19th century until the end of World War II.
Koizumi, however, has distanced himself from that view, arguing that he prays for peace at the shrine.
"My visit to Yasukuni shrine and Yasukuni's point of view are two separate issues," he said.
Meanwhile, South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun said yesterday that he would keep pressuring Tokyo over allegations that Japan is not properly facing up to its wartime misdeeds in Asia.
"I think [we] need diplomacy, in which we should properly demand what we should demand, protest what we should protest and reject what we should," Roh said in a nationally televised news conference.
"We will make various efforts to ensure our legitimate demands are met, and we won't abandon them," he said.
Roh did not specify any demands, but urged Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to consider South Koreans' sentiments about Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni.
Seoul-Tokyo relations have seriously frayed in recent years over several issues, including Japanese school history textbooks that critics say gloss over the country's wartime atrocities, and Koizumi's repeated shrine visits.