Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi began the new year by making a surprise visit to a controversial Tokyo war shrine. The visit drew protests from some of Japan's Asian neighbors who view the shrine as a symbol of Japanese militarism.

Japanese leader Junichiro Koizumi went to the Yasukuni shrine in central Tokyo on Thursday amid crowds of New Year's revelers, who traditionally pray at shrines on January 1.

But the Yasukuni shrine honors 2.5 million Japanese who died in wars since the 1850s, including executed war criminals such as former prime minister General Hideki Tojo. He was hanged for war crimes in 1948.

The shrine visit drew swift criticism from nations that were victims of Japanese militarism in the past. China summoned the top Japanese diplomat in Beijing on Thursday to lodge a formal protest. South Korea also expressed disappointment.

Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century, and invaded China and parts of Southeast Asia in the 1930s.

Mr. Koizumi, speaking to reporters after praying, says he hopes other nations would refrain from negative comments.

He says he is praying for peace and prosperity in Japan, which was built based on the people who died in wars. He adds that he does not think others should comment on a country's respect for its history, traditions and customs.

Mr. Koizumi wore a formal Japanese costume of pleated pants and a traditional kimono as he climbed the shrine's steps and waved to the crowds, led by a Shinto priest in a white robe.

The visit is his fourth since taking office in April 2001 and his first since last January. The visits are seen in Japan as politically motivated, especially since parliamentary elections are planned for July. Political analysts say they are a way to satisfy conservatives in the leader's Liberal Democratic Party and the war veterans who vote for the party and are an important constituency.

In addition, Japan is preparing to deploy up to 1,000 troops to Iraq to help in the U.S.-led reconstruction of that nation, a mission most Japanese oppose. The Japanese constitution bans the troops from taking part in international conflicts except in self-defense, so the soldiers will be limited to a non-combat role.

The Japanese public is deeply concerned about their safety and over threats made about a terrorist attack in Tokyo. Analysts say Thursday's shrine visit may be a way to bolster public support before the deployment, the largest in Japan since World War II.