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Koizumi visits shrine to war dead
( 2004-01-01 10:24) (Agencies)

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi started the new year by visiting a shrine honoring Japan's war dead Thursday, a decision that is certain to rile countries in Asia that Japan invaded and brutally occupied last century.

The visit to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine came at a touchy time for Japan, the United States and other countries engaged in a flurry of diplomacy to prod North Korea to end an impasse over its nuclear programs. Coming in the wake of last week's deployment of an advance air force team for a humanitarian mission to Iraq, the visit also could complicate Japan's plans to carry out its largest overseas military dispatch since World War II.

Koizumi arrived at the shrine amid a throng of New Year's revelers. Dressed in the long robe and pleated trousers of a traditional, formal Japanese costume, Koizumi climbed the steps of Yasukuni shrine led by a white-robed Shinto priest.

Koizumi, who is known for hawkish views and his support of policy to bolster Japan's military, said he had decided on the visit to pray for peace.

"I went with various feelings, including wishes for Japan's peace and prosperity," Koizumi told reporters after his visit. "Japan does not rest solely upon the efforts of people living now ... Japan stands upon the sacrifices of others in the past."

The visit is Koizumi's fourth at the shrine since he became prime minister in April 2001 and his first since January last year.

The prime minister has insisted on making annual trips to Yasukuni shrine, which honors about 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including executed criminals such as war-era Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Japan's neighboring countries in Asia say the shrine glorifies Japan's militaristic past.

The decision is widely viewed as a nod to conservatives in his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but has drawn criticism from nations where Japan's military invaded and then administered with an iron grip in the early 1900s.

It comes at a touchy time for diplomatic efforts to push North Korea to hold a second round of nuclear talks, following the first one held in Beijing in August. That meeting ended without much progress or an agreement on a specific date for a second meeting.

Japan and its partners in the talks, the United States, China, South Korea and Russia, want North Korea to agree to scrap its programs to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea is seeking financial aid and US assurances that it will not be attacked.

Koizumi's visit has triggered angry reactions from North Korea and China in the past and could imperil any agreement to meet soon.

Though countries in Asia have not loudly protested Japan's decision to send its military to help with reconstruction in Iraq, the timing of Koizumi's shrine visit this year could be seen by other countries as part of a broader plan to remilitarize. Tokyo plans to send about 1,000 non-combat military personnel to Iraq to repair war-shattered infrastructure in southern Iraq.

Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony from 1910 to 1945. It also invaded and waged war with China from the 1930s before expanding its ambitions to include southeast Asia.

Despite the passage of more than a half century, Tokyo's reluctance to atone for its brutal rule has been an obstacle to warmer relations with its neighbors.

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