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In Japan, Debate About Shrine Visits Taking on Political Component


Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi, left, follows the chief Shinto priest as he visits Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine (File photo - Jan. 1, 2004)
Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, which heads the country's governing coalition, is facing a division in its ranks over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to a religious site linked to Japan's imperial aggression in Asia. The matter is increasingly becoming a major domestic political issue within the LDP, in addition to straining ties with China and other neighbors.

Politicians viewed as potential successors to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi are coming out either for or against the Yasukuni shrine visits, which have enraged neighboring countries that were victims of Japanese aggression during the early 20th century.

National lawmakers from the governing Liberal Democratic Party have also been making visits to Beijing to make individual efforts to repair the widening rift between China and Japan.

Former Home Affairs Minister Takeshi Noda visited Beijing earlier this month to meet with Chinese officials.

Mr. Noda, appearing on a Sunday morning television talk show, said Prime Minister Koizumi needs to be more prudent about visiting the controversial shrine, so as not to offend China.

Appearing on the same TV Asahi program, senior politician Koichi Kato, once a Koizumi ally and now considered a rival, said even many relatives of fallen soldiers, enshrined at Yasukuni, oppose the visits because conflict between China and Japan will not soothe the souls of the deceased.

Mr. Kato and other LDP politicians are to make their own visit to Beijing later this month.

The fractious governing party is composed of many politicians who are not supporters of Mr. Koizumi, and lately some of them, including former prime ministers, have become increasingly vocal in their concerns about how the shrine visits are affecting relations with China.

But other politicians, such as acting LDP Secretary-General Shinzo Abe, defend Mr. Koizumi's visits to the shrine, which pays homage to Japanese soldiers, including some convicted of war crimes, for their actions in China and on the Korean peninsula.

Mr. Abe is viewed as a possible successor to Mr. Koizumi. Some political analysts explain Mr. Abe's stance by saying it may be a pre-condition to winning critical support from conservative factions.

Those in the conservative camp contend China needs to stop obsessing about the Tokyo shrine before bilateral relations can improve. They say Japan has already apologized enough for what happened in Asia before and during the World War II.