The front-runner to be Japan's next prime minister yesterday defended visits to a war shrine accused of glorifying militarism, but refused to confirm reports he made a secret pilgrimage there earlier this year.
Japanese media widely reported yesterday that Shinzo Abe, currently Chief Cabinet Secretary, visited Yasukuni Shrine in April to pray for the country's war dead, whom are honored there along with executed World War II war criminals.
Abe's office never announced the visit. Still, it was not immediately clear why it took months for word of it to emerge, since the shrine and Abe are closely watched by the national media.
Abe insisted yesterday such visits are a matter of individual conviction and said he intended to ``continue holding my hands together'' for the souls of the dead, implying that he could make further visits.
The apparent visit and Abe's comments signaled further possible friction between Japan and its neighbors should he become prime minister.
China and South Korea suffered heavily under Japanese conquests in the first half of the 20th century, and have protested Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's pilgrimages to the shrine.
Koizumi steps down next month, and Abe is the leading candidate to succeed him. Abe refused to confirm his reported visit and reiterated his stance that he is not obligated to say whether he would go again.
``Since the issue is turning into a diplomatic and political problem, I have said from before that I will not say whether I will go in the future or whether I have paid a visit in the past,'' Abe told reporters in Tokyo.
Koizumi has remained popular with the public and within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party despite the visits. Still, many in Japan are concerned about the sharp deterioration in relations with China and South Korea, and support a halt to the pilgrimages.
The leader of the New Komei Party, the junior partner in the ruling coalition led by Abe's LDP, said he's worried about the impact on relations with China.
``Since I have requested repeatedly that the prime minister and Cabinet secretary refrain from paying a visit to the shrine, Abe's visit is extremely regrettable,'' Takenori Kanzaki said.
Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga also called for caution in deciding the visits.
Abe went to Yasukuni around the time of the shrine's three-day spring rites that began April 21, local newspapers reported, citing unidentified officials. Kyodo News agency said Abe visited on April 15.
While Abe did not use his official car for the visit, he signed Yasukuni's guest book as ``Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe'' and offered flowers with his own money, Kyodo said. It was Abe's first visit since taking the secretary post last October.
Yesterday, Abe defended visits to the shrine by public officials as long as they were made in a private capacity. Pilgrimages made as public officials were also acceptable if they are made to pray for the country's war dead, he said.