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Japanese Prime Minister Defends Shrine Visits

The Japanese prime minister has told Southeast Asian leaders meeting in the Malaysian capital that he fails to understand why the Chinese prime minister refuses to meet him because of his visits to a controversial war shrine.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi says he thinks China should look past the visits to the Tokyo shrine and focus on other issues.

The assistant press secretary at the Japanese ministry of foreign affairs, Akira Chiba, told VOA Mr. Koizumi wants to hold talks with China.

"He is always open," said Akira Chiba. "He would want to hold talks with his Chinese counterpart any time they feel convenient. He said that there are problems between China and Japan but he said that only one issue should not impede the rest of the relationship because the rest of the relationship is very good. We are biggest trade partners for each other. It is a very prosperous relationship so just one issue should not impede the rest of it."

Asia's two biggest economies are feuding over Japan's wartime past. China and South Korea - both occupied by Japan during World War II - want Mr. Koizumi to stop visiting the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including a number of convicted war criminals.

Mr. Chiba says the Japanese prime minister visits the shrine to pay his respects to all the dead.

"He says that he goes there not to glorify the war, not to glorify the past, but instead to soothe the souls of those who had to give their lives against their will in the battlefield," he said. "He goes to the shrine to pledge never again to wage war."

Both China and South Korea have refused to meet one-on-one with Japan on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur. The three countries are dialogue partners with the Southeast Asian group.

The rebuff comes just a day ahead of the inaugural East Asian Summit, when leaders of ASEAN, Japan, China, South Korea, and India, Australia, and New Zealand are to discuss economic integration and political cooperation.

Mr. Chiba says Japan wants to focus on the summit and hopes both China and Korea will look at Japan's lack of aggression now as opposed to its militarist past.

"It is true that Japan has a very sophisticated military capacity but this is defensive," continued Akira Chiba. "Aggressive capability is considerably lacking on our self-defense forces. Our planes cannot reach the Korean Peninsular, we have tanks that are smaller than standard so we can't invade our neighbors. So this is our attitude towards the rest of the world. And I wish the Korean and Chinese people would look at that and not only at the things that ended 60 years ago."

Japan is Southeast Asia's largest donor and experts say its relationship with ASEAN is aimed at bolstering its standing and countering China's growing influence in the region.

Japan has pledged more than $62 million in aid to Southeast Asia, along with the $135-million package it announced Monday to help Asian nations fight bird flu.

Japan also pledged to stockpile anti-flu medicine for one half million people in Southeast Asia.