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Koizumi Shrine Visit Sparks Protests

South Korea and China are expressing strong displeasure with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit Sunday to a controversial shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead. The visit comes in an important year for Japan's relations with its Northeast Asian neighbors.

South Korea's Foreign Minister Choi Sung-Hong summoned Japan's ambassador to South Korea Monday and expressed regrets over Mr. Koizumi's surprise visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on Sunday.

China lodged a formal diplomatic protest with Japanese ambassador as well. An editorial in the official China Daily newspaper called the visit an act of indiscretion that is detrimental to Sino-Japanese relations. In Hong Kong, about 1,000 people protested in front of the Japanese consulate.

During the early-morning visit Mr. Koizumi briefly prayed at the shrine, which honors more than two million Japanese war dead, including 14 convicted and executed World War II war criminals. In South Korea and China, memories of Japan's wartime brutality remain strong and for many people in those nations Mr. Koizumi's visit is seen as a thoughtless gesture and a reminder of Japan's militarist past.

The visit comes in the same year in which Japan and China are honoring the 30th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic ties. It also coincides with Japan's co-hosting of the World Cup with South Korea. The much-awaited soccer tournament opens next month.

Mr. Koizumi told reporters he went to the shrine to pay respects and offer gratitude to the people who lost their lives on the battlefield. He says Sunday was the best time to make a quiet visit, which took place during a spring peace festival.

Last year the prime minister visited the shine on the Auguts 13, two days before the date of Japan's official surrender from World War II. That is an evocative anniversary for the Asian nations that suffered under Tokyo's military aggression and the move drew condemnation across the region. Mr. Koizumi says he timed this year's visit to avoid that date.

Top government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda says Tokyo will explain the visit to South Korea and China if need be, but adds there is no plan to do so at present. He also asks for their understanding.

Mr. Koizumi visited both nations in October in an attempt repair the damage from the shrine visit and Tokyo's approval of a history textbook that critics say whitewashes Japan's wartime aggression.

But the prime minister's recent trip to the shrine also has important domestic political implications. Right-wing voters staunchly support it, and political analysts say they may become increasingly important to the prime minister, whose ratings in opinion polls have plummeted.

His credibility has been hurt be his firing of his popular foreign minister. Makiko Tanaka, in January, a series of corruption scandals within his Liberal Democratic Party and doubts about his commitment to his promised economic and political reforms.

Recent surveys show about 40 percent of voters back the leader and his government, compared to a 90 percent support rate when he took office one year ago this week.