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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged that Japan will never again isolate itself from the world but will seek only amity with its neighbors, during a secular ceremony Wednesday marking the 56th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender.

“In the war, our country caused tremendous damage and pain to people in many countries, particularly those in Asian nations,” Koizumi said in a speech at the government-sponsored ceremony marking the anniversary.

“Representing the people of Japan, I once again express deep remorse and offer sincere condolences to the victims,” he said. Koizumi thus became the first prime minister to declare during an annual Aug. 15 war memorial service that Japan was responsible for the last war.

Addressing the service at the Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward after making his controversial visit Monday to Yasukuni Shrine, Koizumi declared it is Japan’s responsibility to “establish a lasting peace as a way to atone for its past and mourn for the victims.”

“I would like to offer my homage and gratitude to the war dead, as the peace and prosperity that we enjoy now has been built upon the sacrifice of the war dead who lost their lives for this country,” Koizumi said.

The event was attended by 5,300 relatives of the war dead and 1,000 guests, including the Emperor, Empress and political leaders.

The prime minister visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, after protests from Asian neighbors swayed him from his original plan to visit the shrine on Wednesday’s anniversary of Japan’s surrender.

In an address made later in the ceremony, the Emperor said he is still “overcome with deep emotion” 56 years after “those times filled with distress.”

The ceremony was dedicated to 3.1 million war dead, comprising 2.3 million fallen soldiers and 800,000 civilians.

The oldest participant in Wednesday’s event was Yuji Okumura, 90, from Shiga Prefecture, who lost his two brothers in the war.

Before attending the Nippon Budokan ceremony, Koizumi laid a wreath for the nation’s war dead at Tokyo’s Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which is not affiliated with any religion.

Although Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine was the first by a serving prime minister since 1996, the state-run Chidorigafuchi, established in 1959, is visited by prime ministers every year on Aug. 15.

Yasukuni Shrine visits

Five Cabinet ministers and a group of lawmakers paid tribute to Japan’s war dead at Yasukuni Shrine on Wednesday, the 56th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender.

The five are Defense Agency Director General Gen Nakatani; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tsutomu Takebe; public management minister Toranosuke Katayama; Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Takeo Hiranuma; and National Public Safety Commission Chairman Jin Murai.

Nakatani signed his name as a state secretary and paid for a floral offering out of his pocket, while Takebe paid tribute at the entrance of the shrine pavilion, as the general public does, and did not sign his name, saying he will make a formal visit Friday.

Asked if his visit was an official or private one, Nakatani told reporters: “As Defense Agency chief. The visit was made as a Japanese, as a human being, rather than official or private.” Takebe said he was there “as a Japanese and a politician.”

In recent years, the smallest number of Cabinet ministers to visit the shrine on Aug. 15 was four, in 1993 under the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and House of Representatives Speaker Tamisuke Watanuki also visited the Shinto shrine Wednesday.

Many Japanese traditionally visit Aug. 15 to pray at the shrine, which honors nearly 2.5

million Japanese who fought and died in wars through the end of World War II. However, in 1978, the shrine added 14 convicted Class A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, to the list of war dead honored there. The move has continued to spark outrage elsewhere in Asia as well as among some Japanese whenever prominent politicians visit the shrine.

Koizumi visited the shrine Monday, triggering a storm of criticism at home and abroad. Four Cabinet ministers had also already visited the shrine prior to the anniversary. Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda have indicated they would skip the Wednesday visit.

However, it was revealed that Tanaka, who had opposed Koizumi’s visit to the shrine, visited Yasukuni herself on April 30, shortly after becoming foreign minister.

In addition to the Cabinet members, some 190 Diet members or their deputies from the ruling camp and the opposition, including from the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Party, visited the shrine as a group Wednesday, according to figures released by a nonpartisan parliamentary group that promotes paying homage to the war dead at Yasukuni.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara also visited the shrine Wednesday after attending a memorial service for the war dead sponsored by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

He said he made the Yasukuni visit as “Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.”

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