Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the front-runner to succeed him, Shinzo Abe, yesterday brushed aside criticism of visits to a war shrine that have infuriated neighboring countries.
Speculation is mounting that Koizumi will visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where wartime leaders convicted as war criminals are honored along with Japan's 2.5 million war dead, on Tuesday's anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, increasingly seen as a shoo-in to succeed Koizumi as prime minister next month, defended such visits in an interview published the same day, although he has refused to say whether he will visit if he becomes premier.
Koizumi promised during his successful campaign to become ruling party chief in 2001 that he would visit Yasukuni on Aug. 15, a pledge widely seen as intended to woo support from a powerful association of relatives of war dead.
He has visited the shrine each year since, but never on the anniversary, apparently in an effort to dampen outrage in Asia.
"Even if I were to avoid August 15, I am criticized whenever I visit," Koizumi told reporters before leaving on a trip to Mongolia.
"If the prime minister of Japan visits a facility, there is no reason to be criticized," he said, in an apparent reference to protests overseas.
But Koizumi, who said on Wednesday that promises should be kept, declined to say directly whether or when he would go.
"I will make an appropriate decision," he said. "I always do that."
Koizumi came under fire in 2003 when he said during a parliamentary debate with an opposition leader that it was "no big deal" to break campaign pledges.
Most mainstream Japanese media have criticized Koizumi's annual visits to the shrine, which have markedly chilled ties with China and South Korea. Both countries have refused to hold leaders' summits with Japan as a result.
Many Japanese business leaders, worried about the impact of the diplomatic chill on vital economic ties with China, would also like the shrine visits to stop.
In May, the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, a business lobby, publicly urged the prime minister not to go.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao (
But Koizumi defended his position, saying he visited to pray for peace.
"I think it is natural that Japan's prime minister visits Yasukuni to pledge not to wage war again and express his condolences for the war dead," he said.
He also repeated his criticism of Beijing's stance.
"Is it good not to have summit talks just because of one issue?" Koizumi said. "I am an advocate of friendly Sino-Japanese relations."
Abe, who media reports said visited the shrine in secret in April, supported the visits.
"I certainly do not think that the prime minister visiting the shrine implies agreement with or admiration of the aims of the war 60 years ago," he said in an interview with the Bungei Shunju magazine.