Koizumi visit to shrine will enrage Japan's neighbours


JAPAN:   Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi was unlikely to risk outraging Asian neighbours and alienating domestic voters by visiting a shrine for war dead on the anniversary of Japan's second World War surrender, colleagues said yesterday.

However, speculation persisted that the unpredictable premier might yet decide to pay respects at Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine today, the 60th anniversary of the surrender.

A visit to Yasukuni, where Japanese wartime leaders convicted by a 1948 Allied tribunal are honoured, along with Japan's 2.5 million war dead, would outrage China and South Korea, both victims of Japan's military aggression.

Koizumi's long-time ally, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker Taku Yamasaki, said he did not think the prime minister would visit Yasukuni.

"As a longtime friend, I know him heart to heart, and I think he won't go," Mr Yamasaki said on a TV talk show.

Mr Koizumi's coalition partner, New Komeito party leader Takenori Kanzaki, reiterated that the prime minister was unlikely to risk dividing voters ahead of the general election on September 11th.

Mr Koizumi called a snap poll for parliament's lower house last week after rebels in his LDP joined the opposition to defeat bills to privatise the giant Japan Post, which includes the world's biggest deposit-taking institution and has some $3 trillion in assets.

Mr Koizumi is casting the election as a referendum on postal privatisation as a symbol of his broader reform agenda.

"He has said he does not want to make Yasukuni a focus of the election, so I think that he will not go," Kanzaki told public broadcaster NHK.

Since taking office in 2001, Koizumi has made annual pilgrimages to the Shinto shrine, but he has yet to keep a pledge to do so on the anniversary of the war's end. The pledge was widely seen as an appeal to a powerful group of veterans and relatives of war dead for support in his successful bid to become prime minister.

Mr Koizumi, who says he visits Yasukuni to mourn the war dead and pray for peace, last visited the shrine on January 1st, 2004.

Tokyo's ties with Beijing and Seoul, already chilled by Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni, grew colder last April after Japan stepped up its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and approved textbooks by nationalist scholars for use in junior high schools, prompting virulent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and South Korea.

Opinion polls show that the Japanese public is divided on whether Koizumi should keep visiting Yasukuni, seen by some as a solemn memorial to those who died for their country.

LDP executive Shinzo Abe suggested that avoiding the emotive day might be best. "It is up to the prime minister so I don't know what his decision will be," Abe said. "But basically, it is ideal to pray for those who died in a calm atmosphere."