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About 3,000 people — twice as many as last year — gathered Wednesday at Yasukuni Shrine in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, to attend an annual memorial service to pay tribute to Japan’s war dead.

Others paid their respects separately at the shrine.

The service was sponsored by groups that want prime ministers to pay an official visit to the shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who had pledged to officially visit the shrine Wednesday, made his visit Monday amid great uproar.

“It is very significant that the prime minister made an official visit to the shrine despite the huge pressure being applied both within and outside Japan,” said Masao Horie, president of one of the organizing groups, Eirei-ni-Kotaeru-Kai (Group to Honor the Souls of War Heroes).

He said in his speech to the gathering, “We must praise the fact that he restarted the (practice of) official visits by prime ministers, which had been discontinued for 16 years due to pressure from China.”

But he also expressed regret over Koizumi’s decision to renege on his promise to make the visit on the anniversary. The compromise “has left a stain on Japan’s diplomatic stance toward China, and his promises to carry out structural reforms may also be uncertain,” he said.

A 75-year-old war veteran who was later held prisoner in Siberia said he visits the shrine every Aug. 15.

“I know we did terrible things to Chinese and Koreans during the war, and it is natural that they are hostile to Japanese,” he said, adding that he feels sorry for them. But he stressed that visiting the Shinto shrine to honor the war dead should not be interpreted as ignoring the feelings of those who suffered.

A separate ceremony attracting some 250 people and sponsored by a citizens’ group was held the same day at the nearby state-run Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery to mourn the war victims and pledge peace.

With the controversy over Yasukuni, Chidorigafuchi, a national nonreligious grave built in 1959 that contains the ashes of approximately 350,000 unknown soldiers, has been brought up as a possible alternative memorial for the war dead.

Speaking at Chidorigafuchi, Takako Doi, leader of the Social Democratic Party, stressed that Japan should never repeat the mistake of war, and that “our Constitution is in danger due to Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni on the 13th.” Her comments were followed by one minute of silent prayer.

Also Wednesday, about 200 people, including South Koreans demanding their relatives be removed from a list of war dead honored at Yasukuni, were involved in a scuffle with rightists who stopped them from entering the shrine to protest.

Riot police broke up the scuffle. and the protesters returned to Chidorigafuchi, where they had assembled earlier, to hold a rally nearby.

A number of Koreans conscripted as soldiers by the Imperial Japanese Army, or who worked as civilians attached to the military, are among those enshrined at Yasukuni, which honors Japan’s roughly 2.5 million war dead since the mid-19th century.

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