THE Japanese Prime Minister, Mr Ryutaro Hashimoto, yesterday visited a controversial shrine to the nation's war dead, including executed war criminals, breaking a decade long taboo on. Japanese leaders visiting the site.
In a surprise move that risked annoying China, the United States and other nations that were victims of Japan's second World War actions, Mr Hashimoto declared the time had come for Japan to stop apologising for honouring its war dead.
Mr Hashimoto brushed aside suggestions that it was inappropriate for him as prime minister to visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where 2.6 million Japanese who died in warfare since the 19th century are honoured. "Why should it matter any more?" Mr Hashimoto told reporters. "Surely it's time to stop letting that sort of thing complicate our international relations"
A controversy erupted in the mid 1980s over politicians visiting the memorial when it was disclosed that the Shinto place of worship also enshrined the remains of executed second World War criminals, including the wartime prime minister, Gen Hideki Tojo.
Some families have protested against the enshrining of Tojo and other war leaders, saying their spirits had no place among soldiers who were ordered to die on the battlefields. But others have said there should be no distinction between those who died in battle and those executed for war crimes.
When a former prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, made an "official" visit to the shrine in 1985, China, South Korea, North Korea and other countries protested. Since then, no prime minister had visited Yasukuni.
Mr Hashimoto's brief visit was not listed in his daily schedule and lie refused to say in what capacity he made the visit. Asked why he visited the shrine on this day, Mr Hashimoto (59), replied it was his birthday.
"I am not going to reply whether I went there in an official or private capacity," Mr Hashimoto said. But he said he signed the shrine visitors book as "Ryutaro Hashimoto, prime minister".
In October 1994, Mr Hashimoto set off a furore by saying in parliament that while Japan turned the Pacific into a war zone, its fight was not against Asian nations but against "the baited States, England and others".
The most closely watched day for visits to the shrine is August 15th, the date of Japan's surrender.
Before becoming prime minister early this year, Mr Hashimoto paid regular visits to the shrine, including one August 15th, in his, capacity as head of the Japan Bereaved Families of War Veterans Association.
Mr Hashimoto said that by visiting yesterday he had avoided making the pilgrimage on the August 15th anniversary.
"I'm also thinking of going on the day I got word of the death of my cousin in the war," Mr Hashimoto said.
Shinto, Japan's ancient animistic religion, was the state religion until 1945, with the emperor as its spiritual head.
Some political analysts were surprised Mr Hashimoto chose to visit the shrine in the midst of a row about how much compensation Japan should pay to so called "comfort women", non Japanese forced to work in brothels for Japanese soldiers.
But others said that with speculation rife about a possible general election before the end of the year, Mr Hashimoto's visit was a way of avoiding alienating voters on either side of the fence on the war issue.