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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Monday afternoon, two days before the anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, amid strong domestic and international criticism.

Koizumi is the first prime minister in five years to visit the shrine, dedicated to 2.47 million war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals. Ryutaro Hashimoto made a self-proclaimed private visit in July 1996. No Japanese prime minister has made an Aug. 15 visit to the shrine since 1985.

Koizumi said he made the visit two days before the anniversary in an attempt to avoid further diplomatic tensions with China and South Korea.

At home, the move may tarnish his image as an uncompromising leader, particularly among some of his Liberal Democratic Party colleagues.

Koizumi visited the shrine at around 4:30 p.m. and signed his name as “Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.”

He bowed only once before an alter, avoiding the traditional Shinto ritual of two bows, two hand claps and a final bow. He also paid the flower fee from his own pocket money.

Both acts were seen as trying to avoid violating the Constitutional separation of state and religion.

“I paid my respect from my heart as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi,” he said, not making explicit whether his visit was official or private.

In a statement released prior to the visit, Koizumi said he had hoped the public and neighboring nations would understand that his intention was to express his mourning for those who sacrificed their lives for the country.

“But as the anniversary neared, there were voices both at home and abroad that I should not pay the visit,” he said. “If my visiting the shrine on the war-end anniversary should lead to doubts among the public and neighboring nations on Japan’s basic principle to renounce war and value peace, that is not my intention.

“Therefore, I decided not to pay my respect on the anniversary.”

Although Koizumi said he is ashamed that he had to retract his vow to visit on Wednesday, he said he had to consider Japan’s national interest from a broad perspective as prime minister.

In the statement, the prime minister said Japan should never repeat the mistake of going to war.

He also expressed hopes to meet with leaders of China and South Korea in the near future to explain the intention behind his visit.

Noting that World War II Class A war criminals are honored at the shrine, Beijing and Seoul have protested that a prime minister’s visit would put in doubt Japan’s commitment to friendly ties with Asian neighbors that suffered under its imperialism and wartime aggression.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, who read Koizumi’s statement in a regular afternoon news conference, said he will create an advisory panel to discuss ways for Japanese government leaders to pay tribute to the memory of the war dead without triggering ill feelings from the public and neighboring countries.

“It may be a good idea to build a separate facility so that the public and visiting foreign guests can willingly pay their respects,” Fukuda said.

Senior members of the ruling coalition were split on Koizumi’s move.

New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki, who has strongly opposed Koizumi’s visit to the shrine on the anniversary, expressed his regret that Koizumi paid the visit despite the party’s repeated warnings that such a move not only may violate the Constitution but also damage diplomatic relations with Asian countries.

But Kanzaki acknowledged a “certain amount of consideration” by Koizumi, in his avoiding making the visit on the war-end anniversary.

“It was a good decision,” said LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki. “He made an anguished decision, but there was no alternative.”

Although Koizumi considered diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, he did not give in to their pressures, Yamasaki said, adding that the prime minister also took into account the relations with its coalition partner New Komeito.

Meanwhile, former farm minister Shoichi Nakagawa, a senior member of a nonpartisan group that had expressed support for Koizumi’s Yasukuni visit, severely criticized Koizumi for not keeping his word.

“I am deeply disappointed, to tell you the truth,” Nakagawa told reporters. “What happened to the Junichiro Koizumi who will carry out what he has promised?”

Hashimoto, who made a private visit to the shrine in 1996 while he was prime minister, said the Yasukuni issue should not be considered a political matter and that it is up to one’s heart and mind whether to pay respect to those honored at the shrine.

Koizumi expressed his determination to visit Yasukuni on Wednesday during his campaign for the LDP presidency in April, and reiterated his plans after he became prime minister despite warnings from China and South Korea that such a move would further damage diplomatic ties that had already been strained by a row over a controversial history textbook.

Due to increasing criticism not only from the opposition camp but from within his ruling coalition, however, Koizumi was seen wavering on the issue in recent weeks, saying that he will “think hard” before making a decision.

Last Friday, secretaries general of the three ruling parties met with Koizumi and urged the prime minister to refrain from visiting the shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine visits by Japan’s prime ministers have long been a diplomatically sensitive issue.

In 1975, Takeo Miki became the first postwar prime minister to visit the shrine on Aug. 15, although he said he was making the visit as a private citizen. Until the mid-1980s, his successors followed Miki’s example to avoid controversy.

In 1985, Nakasone became the first prime minister to declare he was making an official visit. Prior to this, a private advisory panel to then Chief Cabinet Secretary Takao Fujinami issued a report saying a prime minister’s official visit to the shrine would not violate the Constitution as long as Shinto rituals are avoided.

But Nakasone’s visit provoked such strong criticism from China and South Korea that he had to refrain from a similar visit the next year. No prime minister has since visited the shrine on Aug. 15.

Shiokawa pays visit

Finance Minister Masajuro Shiokawa paid a visit Saturday to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where the nation’s war dead are honored, an official at the shrine said Monday.

Shiokawa was the second minister from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s 17-member Cabinet to visit the shrine ahead of the anniversary Wednesday of Japan’s World War II surrender. Heizo Takenaka, minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy, visited the controversial shrine Aug. 4.

According to the shrine official, Shiokawa visited the Shinto establishment Saturday morning, offering a symbolic branch from the sacred “sakaki” tree and praying in the Shinto style.

He also signed the visitor’s registry, although the official did not disclose what title Shiokawa had used to describe himself.

At a news conference Aug. 7, the 79-year-old minister said: “If I have time, I would like to visit (the shrine Wednesday). Many from my generation died (in the war) and I would like to remember them and express gratitude to them for what I am today.”

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