Koizumi kicks off new year defiant toward Beijing, Seoul

by Reiji Yoshida

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi criticized China and South Korea during his New Year’s news conference Wednesday, claiming it is Beijing and Seoul, not Tokyo, that should work to resolve their long-standing gripes over his repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

During the nationally televised news conference, Koizumi also predicted 2006 will be a year when “a majority of people” will feel Japan is on track for a long-awaited economic revival.

Speaking about his visits to the Tokyo shrine that honors Japan’s 2.47 million war dead, as well as Class-A war criminals, Koizumi said, “China and South Korea should not close the door to (summit) talks, or negotiations only because of this single issue.”

China and South Korea have refused to hold summits with Koizumi in recent months, citing his repeated visits to the Shinto shrine as evidence that Japan has not atoned for its wartime aggression and colonial rule.

Asked by reporters what specific steps he could take to improve the strained relations with the two key East Asian neighbors, Koizumi said only the ball to improve ties between the political leaders is in Beijing’s and Seoul’s court.

“I would be willing to respond to talks at any time, and the door is still open,” Koizumi said. “The remaining question is what decision the other sides make.”

Koizumi reiterated it is only natural for the prime minister to express gratitude and pay respect to the war dead in general, with a renewed pledge to never cause another war.

Koizumi described his decision to continue his shrine visits as “a matter of the heart” that should not be interfered with by anyone who respects freedom of thought.

“I still can’t understand why (some) Japanese criticize (the visits), not to mention foreign governments,” he said.

At the outset of the news conference at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, Koizumi delivered the traditional New Year’s address.

On the economic front, he advocated a relatively austere fiscal budget and keeping pressure on financial institutions to dispose of bad loans quickly.

Koizumi claimed many politicians had called for lukewarm economic and financial polices, but the recent recovery of the economy has proved his tougher stance is the correct one.

“No reforms, no growth. This has ended the debate that has continued over the past four years,” he said. “My job is to take steps toward a solid economic recovery.”

Speaking about who may succeed him when his Liberal Democratic Party presidency, and hence prime ministership, ends in September, Koizumi said it is too early to say.

Foreign observers will probably focus on whether his successor continues his hardline stance toward Beijing and Seoul. And the LDP presidential race will probably be affected by Koizumi’s endorsement of a candidate, given his popularity.