Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s contentious visits to Yasukuni Shrine are a matter of religious freedom, the government said Tuesday, rejecting criticism leveled by a powerful U.S. congressman.
The remarks followed media reports from Washington that Henry Hyde, chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, is seeking a guarantee from Koizumi that he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine if he is invited to deliver a speech to Congress during a trip to Washington planned for late June.
In a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert on April 26, Hyde, an Illinois Republican, wrote that Koizumi could embarrass Congress and offend American veterans of World War II by making another visit to the war shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of the war, after addressing the Congress in the building President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his dramatic 1941 speech just after Japan launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I believe that most congressmen respect the freedom of religion, and such criticism is rather rare,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said.
“To begin with, the prime minister is not planning to give a speech at the U.S. Congress, nor has he indicated he wants to do so,” Abe said. “If the true meaning of his visits to Yasukuni has not gained understanding, we have to make efforts to make it understood.”
In the letter, Hyde, 82, reportedly cited media reports that Koizumi could travel to the U.S. in June and speak before a joint meeting of Congress.
Koizumi has gone to Yasukuni, which honors Japan’s war dead as well as Class-A war criminals, every year since taking office in 2001. He has not yet visited this year.
Koizumi defends his visits by claiming his purpose is to pray for peace and the visits are private. Whenever he goes, however, there is always a mob of camera crews and reporters waiting for him, and he usually signs the shrine’s guest book with his title.
Referring to the fact that Yasukuni honors wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo and other convicted Class-A war criminals involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hyde urged Hastert to obtain “prior assurance” from Japan that Koizumi will not visit the shrine after delivering a speech to Congress.
Hyde, who served in the U.S. Navy during the war, has been critical of Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni.
Information from Kyodo News added