Japan's prime minister said yesterday that he is ready "at any time" to visit a Tokyo war shrine criticized as a symbol of militarism, indicating he plans to make another pilgrimage before he steps down in September.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi again defended his visits to Yasukuni Shrine to pray for Japan's war dead, but did not specify when he might go again.
Koizumi last visited the shrine last October, and he is widely expected to make his next pilgrimage on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II, before stepping down as prime minister next month.
"I'm ready to visit at any time, but I will decide appropriately," Koizumi told a group of reporters in Hiroshima, where he attended a ceremony marking the 61st anniversary of the US atomic bombing of the city at the end of World War II.
"I don't think there is anything wrong with a visit by a Japanese prime minister to a Japanese establishment to mourn for the war dead," Koizumi said. "The purpose of the visit to Yasukuni is to pray for the war dead and renew my commitment that war should never be waged. I don't see any problem in that."
Yasukuni deifies the country's 2.5 million war dead, including executed war criminals from World War II. Koizumi's visits to the shrine have strained Tokyo's diplomatic ties with China and other Asian countries that suffered from Japan's wartime aggression.
China and South Korea have harshly protested Koizumi's five visits to the shrine since he took office in 2001.
Koizumi's visits have also spawned several lawsuits claiming they violated the constitutional division of state and religion.
On Friday, the front-runner to be Japan's next prime minister, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, defended visits to the shrine, but refused to confirm reports that he secretly went there in April.
Abe said such visits are a matter of individual conviction and said he intended to pray for the souls of the dead, implying that he could make further visits. His support for visits to the shrine signal further possible friction between Japan and its neighbors should he succeed Koizumi.
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon will tell Abe on Wednesday that "South Korea-Japan relations can move forward only when Japanese political leaders have the right recognition of history," ministry spokesman Choo Kyu-ho told reporters in Seoul.
Ban is to visit Tokyo this week to attend a funeral tomorrow for a former Japanese prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, who died last month.
Ban also is scheduled to meet with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso to discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons program and recent missile launches.
Aso is reportedly hoping to persuade Yasukuni to surrender its religious status and become a state-run memorial, so the government can remove the names of convicted war criminals there and end a row over the shrine visits.
Opponents of Yasukuni have focused attention on the inclusion of 14 convicted top war criminals among the war dead. The shrine also hosts a museum that attempts to justify Japan's past militarism.