Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the country's controversial shrine to its war martyrs yesterday, in a move aimed at softening criticism abroad without losing face at home. He was the first prime minister to make an official visit to the shrine since 1985.
Since his rise to power in April, Mr. Koizumi has said he would visit the Shinto shrine, which is dedicated to some 2.5 million men and women who lost their lives in war, fighting for Japan. But among them are 14 "Class A" war criminals, whose remains were moved to the shrine more than three decades after World War II.
So, Koizumi's compromise gesture yesterday - moving up his visit by two days - did not go over well with Japan's neighbors, who say the Yasukuni shrine glorifies war crimes in China, Korea, and elsewhere in Asia, as well as stirring nationalist sentiment.
By going to the shrine ahead of Aug. 15 - the date that marks Japan's surrender in World War II - Koizumi tried to avoid antagonizing his neighbors.
"I want from the bottom of my heart to maintain friendly ties with China, South Korea, and other Asian nations," Koizumi said during the snap visit, which took place on a holiday when many Japanese leave the cities to visit their ancestral homes. "It became evident that a visit on the 15th would be interpreted in an opposite way, and that is not what I desire."
But the date change did not assuage Beijing. "The Chinese side's standpoint on this issue hasn't changed," China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We oppose Japanese leaders visiting this shrine that has memorial tablets to Class A war criminals."
Also, at a public protest in Seoul, hours before Koizumi visited the shrine, 20 men each chopped off one of their little fingers to protest the Japanese leader's decision. In South Korea, Aug. 15 is Liberation Day, which marks the end of a brutal 35-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula by Japan.
But, by keeping his promise to the make a visit, Koizumi pleased those Japanese who feel that their country has a right to remember its fallen soldiers as it sees fit. But he also faced criticism - both from those who were disappointed in him for bowing out of his promise to visit the shrine on Aug. 15, and from those who thought he should not have made the visit at all.
"It seems to foreigners that Mr. Koizumi must be right-wing and nationalist, but it's not true," says Yasunari Sone, a political scientist at Keio University. "He's a little bit stubborn about old traditional areas, such as the Yasukuni Shrine, and he's saying, 'I want to pray for dead soldiers,' but I think people will find that kind of interpretation to be OK. He wants to send a message of Japanese integrity."
But Isamu Ueda, a lawmaker from the New Komeito, a Buddhist political party in Koizumi's government, doesn't agree.
"I don't think it was a wise decision ... but if he had taken back his word to visit the Yasukuni shrine, I think he would have given the impression that he is very weak," says Isamu .
And even Japan's war veterans are divided over the idea of their prime minister's visiting the shrine. World War II pilot Yoshitada Ichimura is doubtful that Koizumi, two decades his junior, should have made a visit that will be read as more political than personal.
"I believe that Koizumi could come and pray here as an individual. But thinking about Korea and China, I think maybe he should [have] put off making a visit here," says Ichimura.
Several politicians yesterday accused Koizumi of violating the Constitution by making the visit in an official capacity: He signed the visitors' book "Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi."
After his visit, Koizumi offered words of contrition about Japan's behavior before and during World War II, saying: "We should not engage in such a war ever again. I paid the visit to renew my pledge for peace."