Japan shrine debate grows before WWII anniversary

By Isabel Reynolds Mon Aug 7, 4:42 AM ET

TOKYO (Reuters) - China urged Japan on Monday to stop visits by its leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, as speculation grew that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi would make a pilgrimage next week on the anniversary of Japan's World War Two surrender.

South Korea, which also suffered under Japanese military aggression, is expected to make a similar demand this week when its foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, visits Tokyo.

Tokyo's relations with both Beijing and Seoul have been damaged by Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni since he took office in 2001, and are likely to worsen further if he pays his respects there on August 15.

"We want top Japanese officials to call an immediate halt to visits to Yasukuni, where Class A war criminals are enshrined," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters during a visit to Tokyo. "Dealing with the history problem based on a correct view of history will be to the benefit of both the Japanese and Chinese peoples," he added.

Yasukuni is seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan's past militarism. Fourteen wartime leaders convicted by an Allied tribunal as "Class A" war criminals are honored there along with 2.5 million war dead, and a museum within the shrine grounds is often criticized as glorifying war.

Last week media reports said Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner to become Japan's next prime minister, had secretly paid his respects there in April. China has not specifically criticized the reported pilgrimage by Abe, seen as the most likely candidate to succeed Koizumi when he steps down in September.

South Korea's Ban is likely to raise the topic in meetings with Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Aso during his visit to Tokyo this week.

"It may be that people mistakenly believe that China's attitude toward Yasukuni has changed in some ways," Liu said when asked why China had not issued an immediate condemnation last week. "In fact the attitude of the Chinese government and people to the history problem is consistent and has not changed."

Abe reiterated on Monday that he would not confirm or deny whether he had made the pilgrimage.

A newspaper survey published on Monday underlined the decline in ties between Japan and South Korea.

Japan's conservative Yomiuri newspaper and the South Korean daily Hankook Ilbo surveyed voters in the two countries in late June and early July.

The poll found 89 percent of South Korean respondents mistrusted Japan, while 51 percent of Japanese harbored similar feelings about South Korea, up 17 points from a survey last year.

Sixty percent of Japanese said it was not a problem if their prime minister visited Yasukuni, the Yomiuri said, while a mere 10 percent of South Koreans said such visits were acceptable.

Yasukuni also divides domestic opinion.

"I understand that he wants to go on the 15th, but when you think of the implications that come from it, we shouldn't take it lightly," senior ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taku Yamasaki told reporters on Monday.


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