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Japan's Koizumi visits war shrine, touches off diplomatic firestorm

TOKYO—Japan's prime minister touched off a diplomatic firestorm in Asia on Monday by visiting a shrine to World War II dead that Japan's neighbors say symbolizes the nation's brutal, militaristic past.

South Korea and China acted swiftly after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit. South Korea scrapped talks for a summit in December, ending a string of annual "shuttle" summits between leaders. China's Foreign Ministry declared Koizumi's trip to the shrine an outrage and called off a visit next Sunday by Japan's foreign minister.

Koizumi's visit marked the fifth straight year that he has gone to the Yasukuni Shrine, a shady sanctuary that recalls the era when Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula and parts of China. His last visit was on New Year's Day 2004.

The visits have been condemned repeatedly by Japan's neighbors, who complain that the country still hasn't accepted its guilt for World War II-era atrocities. Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula and parts of China before World War II, and historians say its troops dragooned local women for sex and conducted biological experiments on human beings.

In the postwar era, Japan has offered numerous apologies for its wartime conduct, and provided $30 billion in assistance and loans to China, but China and other Asian countries say Japan must do more, including revising the way the war is taught in Japanese schools.

Koizumi's chief Cabinet secretary, Hiroyuki Hosoda, said the prime minister visited the shrine on the first day of its four-day autumn festival as a private citizen, not as an elected leader.

There were indications that Koizumi tried to keep the visit low-key. He wore a dark gray suit, rather than a traditional kimono, and didn't enter the main hall or sign a register as in past years. He also didn't follow the Shinto style of worship: bowing twice, clapping twice and bowing again. He bowed once, threw money into an offering box, prayed for 30 seconds or so, bowed again, then left.

But Monday's visit underscored his tin ear—or indifference—to Japan's sour relations with its neighbors in the 60th anniversary year of the end of World War II.

In addition to canceling the December summit, South Korea's foreign minister summoned Japan's ambassador to express "deep regret" over the shrine visit.

In China, a small street protest gathered outside Japan's walled embassy compound in Beijing. Earlier in the day, the mission sent a mass e-mail to Japanese residing in China warning of a possible "strong reaction" from angry Chinese, harking back to violent and massive anti-Japanese protests that erupted last April in several large cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.

Koizumi cited Japan's postwar pacifism after the visit, brushing off criticism.

"I will continue explaining to our neighbors that this is only expressing and offering sincere respect to the war dead, and I pledge that Japan is a peace-loving nation that will never go to war again," Koizumi said.

A high court in Osaka ruled Sept. 30 that Koizumi's annual visits to the shrine violated the constitutional separation of religion and state. A day earlier, a Tokyo court had issued a contrary ruling.

Koizumi didn't consult even with close advisers before visiting the shrine Monday, the NHK television network said.

Even before the shrine visit, Japan was facing diplomatic rows with South Korea and China over a variety of issues, including the sovereignty of disputed islands in the Sea of Japan and sea bed-exploration rights in the East China Sea.

Beijing and Tokyo are holding volatile talks over a Chinese natural-gas project in disputed waters of the East China Sea about equidistant from both nations, near a so-called median line that Japan drew and China doesn't recognize. Last month, Chinese warships deployed near the Chunxiao gas field and a Chinese destroyer aimed its guns at a Japanese surveillance plane flying overhead.

"Koizumi's visit to the shrine will definitely damage the negotiations," said Gui Yongtao, a regional expert at Peking University's school of international studies.

Reflecting a view of many Chinese, Gui said Koizumi's visit showed that he "isn't seeking vigorously to improve Sino-Japanese relations."

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(Special correspondent Doi reported from Tokyo, Johnson from Beijing. Special correspondent Fan Linjun in Beijing contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-SHRINE

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