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Koizumi Visits Controversial Japanese War Shrine - 2002-04-21

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Sunday made a surprise visit to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates not only Japan's war dead but also convicted war criminals.

Before leaving his official residence Sunday morning, Prime Minister Koizumi told reporters, 'It is the best timing [to visit Yasukuni].'

Mr. Koizumi offered prayers at the Shinto shrine, which honors 14 Class-A war criminals from the Second World War, along with the 2.5 million Japanese who have died in wars since the mid-19th century.

It was the second time Mr. Koizumi has paid homage at Yasukuni Shrine since he became Japan's prime minister in April of last year. His first visit last August, the first by a prime minister in five years, drew strong protests from neighboring Asian countries that were victims of Japanese wartime atrocities and imperialism, such as China and South Korea.

The issue of Japanese government leaders visiting the shrine has long been a highly political act, with pressures applied from other Asian countries still remembering Japanese occupation and the political right in Japan.

After paying his respects at Yasukuni Sunday morning, Mr. Koizumi told reporters he will not visit the shrine again this August, saying, 'no way. [Visiting the shrine] is once a year.'

Mr. Koizumi had told reporters last week he would not attend Yasukuni Shrine's three-day spring peace festival, which begins Sunday afternoon.

Because his visit to Yasukuni Shrine last year had soured relations with Beijing and Seoul, the Japanese leader had expressed caution in recent days on whether he would go again this August. The Japanese prime minister had said last week he would decide whether to make another visit to pay his respects to war dead at Yasukuni after 'judging the situation.'

The controversial Yasukuni visit comes a little more than a month before Japan is to co-host the World Cup soccer (football) championship with South Korea, which, along with communist North Korea, harbors lingering animosity toward Tokyo for the harsh colonial rule it imposed on the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.