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Leader Stirs Anger With Shrine Visit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a simple gesture lasting a few minutes at most Monday--an entrance and a bow--yet it provoked a tidal wave of anger in Japan and throughout Asia, even inciting 20 South Koreans to chop off their little fingers.

Wearing a morning coat and trailing a few steps behind a Shinto priest clad in a beige robe and a glittering black hat, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi climbed a set of wooden stairs in a 132-year-old shrine commemorating Japan’s 2.46 million war dead and bowed deeply before an altar.

Helicopters hovered like mosquitoes overhead, disrupting what was to have been a tranquil moment in the sheltered complex in central Tokyo. Meanwhile, hundreds of people outside waved Japanese flags and shouted “Banzai!”

South Korea and China, which had warned of their anger should Koizumi make his planned visit, immediately denounced it as evidence of Japan’s insensitivity and lack of remorse for its militaristic past--particularly because 14 Class A war criminals are memorialized at the Yasukuni Shrine.

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Meanwhile, many Japanese who favored Koizumi’s visit were left disappointed. Because of the domestic and international pressure, the prime minister opted at the last minute to make his stop Monday, two days ahead of when he had vowed during his spring election campaign that he would visit. The later date, Aug. 15, is replete with symbolism, since it is observed here as the anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, and Koizumi said that in changing his plans, he had considered the feelings of foreign countries that had voiced objections to the pilgrimage.

Shoichi Nakagawa, a parliament member and leader of a nonpartisan group supporting the visit, said he was “very disappointed” that it was moved forward.

“I asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda what happened to Koizumi’s promise that he always does what he pledges to do,” Nakagawa said.

Opposition political parties criticized Koizumi for violating the constitutionally mandated separation of religion and government, since shrines are part of the Shinto faith. Other observers branded the prime minister a nationalist in reformer’s clothing.

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“He says, ‘I’ll go to Yasukuni first, and then let them complain,’ ” said Hidekazu Kawai, a comparative politics professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. “He’s a right-winger. Policy is hardly discussed.”

The visit is likely to cost the popular Koizumi some support at home and weaken his credibility among his Asian neighbors. Japan has been under near-constant diplomatic attack in recent years for insensitivity to those nations it colonized, for misrepresenting wartime aggressions in school textbooks and for failing to own up to its past or engage in the kind of soul-searching about its history that Germany, for example, has.

Koizumi was the first prime minister since 1985 to visit the shrine in mid-August. Yasuhiro Nakasone visited in August of that year but was denounced so widely that he canceled a return the following year. Kiichi Miyazawa paid a quiet visit in fall 1992, and Ryutaro Hashimoto came on his birthday in July 1996 but insisted that he did so as a private citizen.

Immediately after paying homage Monday, a somber Koizumi told reporters that he wasn’t saying whether his visit was official or private.

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“Junichiro Koizumi, who is the prime minister, made a heartfelt visit. That’s all there is to it,” he said.

He said he didn’t make the traditional Shinto offerings of money or of a double-bow and clapping, but rather performed a simple bow and a few days earlier paid his own money for two floral arrangements prominently displayed in the inner sanctum.

“It’s long been my conviction that peace and prosperity were built on the sacrifice of those who died in World War II and other wars, and they have my heartfelt respect and gratitude,” he said.

Asked whether his respect included the war criminals memorialized at the site, among them World War II Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, Koizumi replied, “I went to pay respects to many killed in war, not any particular groups or individuals.”

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In a statement, he also acknowledged that during the war, “Japan caused tremendous suffering to many people of the world, including its own people,” and that it “imposed, through its colonial rule and aggression, immeasurable ravages and suffering, particularly to the people of the neighboring countries in Asia.”

China nevertheless denounced the visit, suggesting that Japan is not fully repentant for its wartime aggression. According to the official New China News Agency, the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing summoned the Japanese ambassador to express “strong indignation.”

South Korea expressed “deep concern” that Koizumi paid respect “to even war criminals who destroyed world peace and inflicted indescribable damage to the neighboring countries.” Hours before the visit, 20 South Korean men--who a Seoul television station said were from a martial arts group but others identified as possible gangsters--each chopped off a little finger in a protest aimed at stopping the Japanese prime minister’s homage.

News reports also mentioned protests by groups elsewhere in Asia, including Malaysia and Hong Kong.

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In Japan, however, feelings about the Yasukuni Shrine are complex. It is a popular site: An estimated 6 million to 8 million people visit annually. Kosuke Nambu, 67, comes regularly to commemorate his father, who was killed in the war between Japan and China, and happened to be visiting Monday, just before the announcement that Koizumi planned to come later in the day.

“They died for the sake of their country, so of course it’s natural for the prime minister to visit and pray for these people,” he said.

The sprawling, tree-lined shrine complex has grown even more popular since Koizumi vowed to visit. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were at Yasukuni on Monday well before it was announced that Koizumi would arrive in a few hours.

Teruo Shintachi, 65, came to pay his respects with his wife, his 88-year-old mother and his daughter and son-in-law.

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“We are three generations, and between them there was a war,” he said after rinsing his hands, in a purification rite, with a bamboo ladle dipped in a trough of water. “We came all together to pray to God because now we live in a peaceful country because of the war victims’ efforts. It has nothing to do with war criminals.”

The shrine’s name literally means “peaceful country” and suggests that owing to the “meritorious services of the spirits of the deities worshiped, the nation enjoys peace and security,” a shrine brochure explains. There are, however, some cannons, a locomotive, bronzed bombshells and a museum with memorabilia on the site, along with a serene Japanese garden.

Many Japanese say that everyone is considered a god after death--even gangsters. Curiously, about 50,000 of the nearly 2 1/2 million people memorialized as gods at the site are Koreans and Taiwanese whom the Japanese conscripted during World War II.

In fact, there’s no public note or placard in the museum to indicate who is actually commemorated there and what they did.

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The shrine was operated by the government before the war, and the military decided who could be memorialized. Since the war, though, it has been run by a private Shinto group that determines whom to honor. It decided to add the spirits of the war criminals to the shrine surreptitiously, in 1978.

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Makiko Inoue of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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