Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi yesterday signaled that he was likely to go to the controversial Yasukuni shrine on a sensitive war anniversary despite appeals from neighboring countries and rising public opposition.
Koizumi, who steps down next month, said he wanted to honor a campaign pledge he made before taking office in 2001 to visit the war shrine on Aug. 15, the date of Japan's surrender in World War II.
"I think it should be kept," Koizumi said of his promise during a visit to Nagasaki to mark the anniversary of the US atomic bomb that flattened the southern Japanese city.
"Whatever your promise is, you know you should keep it, don't you?" Koizumi told reporters who pressed him on whether he will go to Yasukuni shrine.
Koizumi has gone each year to the Shinto shrine, infuriating China and South Korea, which remain bitter over Japan's past aggression and see the site as a symbol of militarism.
But he has never gone on Aug. 15, a date when war veterans and nationalists congregate at the shrine, including some historical revisionists who say Japan has been too apologetic since its surrender.
The Yasukuni shrine honors 2.5 million war dead including 14 top war criminals from World War II. Koizumi argues he visits to honor all war dead and to recommit Japan to its post-war pacifism.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner to succeed Koizumi, is a strong supporter of Yasukuni shrine and visited last year on Aug. 15. He has refused to comment on whether he will go or to confirm reports he paid a secret pilgrimage in April.
Abe yesterday met with South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, who urged him to help ease "severe" strains between the neighbors.
"It is regrettable that South Korea and Japan have been in severe situations in the past few years," Ban said.
"I want you to play your role, particularly keeping the history issue in mind," said Ban, who was in Tokyo to attend the funeral of late prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, known for close ties with Asian neighbors.
Abe, a 51-year-old conservative, stressed that Ban did not press him directly on the shrine.
"There was no reference to the Yasukuni issue. Regarding history, Mr Ban said we have needed to resolve the history issue since March. He said he expects my leadership in resolving this issue," Abe told reporters.
In March, a dispute flared up between the neighbors over a set of disputed islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
Both South Korea and China, which is Japan's biggest trading partner, have refused top-level meetings with Koizumi due to his visits to the shrine.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao (
Polls have shown growing opposition to the war shrine since revelations last month that wartime emperor Hirohito -- in whose name troops went to battle -- stopped visiting because of the 1978 decision to enshrine war criminals.
A survey published yesterday by the Yomiuri Shimbun showed 50 percent of Japanese wanted the next premier to stay away from Yasukuni shrine, up 8 percentage points from a previous poll.
Forty percent backed a pilgrimage by the next prime minister, down 6 points.
Among other candidates for the premiership, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki has pledged to stay away from the shrine and Foreign Minister Taro Aso has proposed bringing the site under state control.