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Japan Leader Under Pressure to Scrap War Shrine Visit - 2001-07-31

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has come under renewed pressure to scrap his plan to visit a controversial war shrine next month.China and South Korea have repeatedly objected to the visit because the shrine honors, among others, convicted war criminals. But this time, Mr. Koizumi's cabinet is also feuding over the issue.

Fresh from his coalition government's victory in a parliamentary election on Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is now caught in a heated debate over his plan to visit the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15.

The shrine, in central Tokyo, is highly controversial because it honors convicted war criminals as well as millions of ordinary Japanese soldiers who died in battle from the 19th century onwards.

China and South Korea, victims of Japanese militarism before and during World War II, have been pushing for Mr. Koizumi to cancel the visit since he took office in April, saying it would condone Japan's aggression.

Mr. Koizumi would not be the first prime minister to visit the shrine, but some past leaders have tried to skirt controversy by calling the visit private. Mr. Koizumi has rejected that distinction as hair splitting.

On Tuesday, cabinet spokesman Yasuo Fukuda defended the prime minister's desire to visit Yasukuni, also he did not say if a final decision has been made. He said Mr. Koizumi's personal view is that he wishes to pay respect to the millions of people who gave their lives for their country. He rejects criticism from outsiders.

But the debate has hit home with the cabinet now divided over the issue.

Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka is urging him to call off the visit, saying it will further strain relations with Japan's Asian neighbors.

And Chikara Sakaguchi, Japan's Health, Labor and Welfare minister, is questioning whether an official visit to a Shinto shrine violates the principle of separation of state and religion. He said he thinks it is acceptable if Mr. Koizumi visits Yasukuni personally. But adds that if he wants to visit there officially, he should consider constitutional limits.

Mr. Koizumi appears to be softening his stand on the issue. Monday he said he would consult with other officials before making a final decision on whether to visit Yasukuni shrine.