Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited a controversial war shrine Monday, where he paid homage to Japan's fallen soldiers. The Japanese leader made the visit two days ahead of schedule, amid protests from Japan's Asian neighbors.
In an attempt to downplay controversy, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid his respects at a Shinto shrine honoring the nation's war dead Monday instead of Wednesday, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.
By pushing his visit two days earlier, Mr. Koizumi was trying to dampen its symbolism. China, North and South Korea - countries that suffered under Japan's past expansionist policies - have strongly protested the visit to the shrine, which honors millions of Japanese soldiers serving in World War II, including convicted war criminals.
After his brief trip to the shrine, Mr. Koizumi gave reporters his reason for worshipping at a controversial spot that most of his recent predecessors have avoided. He said Japan must not forget that today's peace and prosperity is the result of the many lives that were lost in World War II. He said he prayed for the souls of the dead and that Japan would never again go to war.
Mr. Koizumi was led into the shrine's altar by a priest, but he did not undergo traditional Shinto purification rituals, which could have stirred concerns of violating the separation of church and state as outlined in the Japanese Constitution.
The prime minister said he backed off from a previous pledge to visit the shrine August 15 because his intentions would be misunderstood by some Japanese and by neighboring governments. He said he would like to meet with top officials from other Asian countries to exchange opinions and to clear up any misinterpretations.
In a statement released before his visit to the shrine, Mr. Koizumi tried to soothe the anger that much of Asia still feels towards Japan for its aggression before and during the war. In it, he said Japan caused immeasurable pain and suffering when it colonized other nations. He said Japan's aggressive actions were based on a mistaken national policy. The Japanese leader offered his deepest regret for all the victims of war.
Beijing immediately criticized the shrine visit, saying it remains opposed to Japanese leaders worshipping at the shrine.