Koizumi apologises for Japan's wartime record


JAPAN/CHINA: Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi sought to mend ties with China yesterday when he apologised for his country's war record. But his message of peace was undermined somewhat by a visit by leading members of his own political party to a controversial war shrine, reports Clifford Coonan from Beijing

"In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations," Mr Koizumi said in a speech delivered at a meeting of Asian and African leaders in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. "Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility."

Sino-Japanese ties are at their lowest ebb in decades, after China staged violent protests over what demonstrators say is Japan's failure to atone for crimes committed during the second World War.

There was broad welcome for Mr Koizumi's apology on the streets of Beijing.

But the conciliatory tone was lessened by reports that a Japanese cabinet minister and 80 of his parliamentary colleagues had paid their annual springtime respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, a war memorial that commemorates more than 1,000 convicted war criminals alongside Japan's 2.5 million other military dead.

The Chinese foreign ministry issued an angry response to the visits.

"China's position on the Yasukuni Shrine is clear. At present, Sino-Japanese relations are facing a grim situation, and we express our strong dissatisfaction with some Japanese political personnel's negative behaviour in disregarding the general situation," ran the terse statement.

There is strong speculation that Mr Koizumi will meet Chinese president Hu Jintao in Jakarta at a bilateral summit, although the meeting has not been confirmed yet.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK showed internal affairs minister Taro Aso paying his respects at the shrine alone, after an early morning visit by a group that included two senior vice-ministers.

A Japanese government spokesman said the visits were a traditional part of an annual springtime ritual, intended to honour the dead and pray for peace, not to anger China or South Korea, both of which were victims of Japanese military aggression. Almost all of the parliamentarians visiting the shrine were members of Mr Koizumi's party and the group said they were confident that Mr Koizumi would visit the shrine later this year, a move sure to set Chinese nerves on edge again.

There have been signs of warmer relations recently and the Chinese government has urged its people not to take part in violent protests against Japan's war record this weekend. This follows three successive weekends of violent protests on the streets.

Chinese commerce minister Bo Xilai said ongoing political tensions would eventually harm economic relations between the two countries. "Initial signs have already emerged that the chilliness in political links does affect the warmth of economic ties," Mr Bo said.