Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi today made a pilgrimage to a Tokyo war shrine reviled by critics as a symbol of militarism, triggering a further erosion in Japan's ties with its neighbours just a month before he leaves office.
The impact of the visit to Yasukuni Shrine was heightened by its timing - 15 August is a date viewed with sadness in Japan as the anniversary of its Second World War surrender, but celebrated as a day of liberation from Japanese colonial rule elsewhere in Asia.
The early morning pilgrimage prompted protests in China and South Korea, which suffered heavily under Japanese invasions and from those who view the shrine - which honours war criminals among Japan's 2.5 million war dead - as a glorification of imperialism.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called on Japan to "prove it has no intention to repeat" its past aggression as his government summoned the Japanese ambassador to issue an official protest.
In Beijing, protesters gathered outside the Japanese Embassy, waving Chinese flags and shouting slogans after the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the visit a "hindrance to international justice that tramples the human conscience."
Koizumi defended the Yasukuni visit - his sixth since 2001 but his first as prime minister on August 15 - by saying that he goes there to pray for peace and to honour fallen soldiers, not to glorify militarism. News reports said 56 politicians also went to Yasukuni today.
Koizumi also accused China and South Korea of using the issue to pressure Japan. Both countries have refused to hold summits with Koizumi unless he stops the pilgrimages.
"I have told them that my visits to the shrine should not be used as a diplomatic card," Koizumi said. "I have expressed my view that making the decision over whether or not to hold summit meetings based on whether I visit the shrine is not a good thing."
Later in the day, Koizumi attended a memorial service at a ceremonial hall in Tokyo marking the 61st anniversary of Japan's surrender, where he reiterated his country's regret for the suffering it caused in its past wars.
The shrine visits have been a lightning rod for critics who accuse Japan of failing to fully atone for its military invasions in the 1930s and 40s. The shrine played a leading role in whipping up war fever in the first half of the 20th century.
The visit came a little more than a month before Koizumi is scheduled to step down as prime minister at the end of September, leaving his successor with Tokyo's relations with its neighbours at their lowest in decades.
"China and South Korea naturally issued strong protests, and they could even recall ambassadors," said Yoshinori Murai, expert on Southeast Asia at Sophia University. "I think this will leave serious problems behind."
Japanese public opinion is split over the visits. While many feel Japanese leaders should have the right to honour the war dead, others fear alienating Japan's neighbours. A number of lawsuits argue that the visits violate the division between the state and religion.
Both Takenori Kanzaki, the leader of Koizumi's junior coalition partner, the New Komei Party, and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki criticised the pilgrimage. Other critics were the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, a Buddhist organisation and a group of relatives of war dead.
Supporters, however, said the visits are justified. War veterans and ultra-rightists thronged the shrine Tuesday, some carrying banners with slogans such as, "The Greater East Asia War was not a war of aggression".
The shrine is also working to win more support from the young, many of whom are tired of bearing the war guilt of their elders. Yu Ushiyama, 19, said foreign critics were just using the visits to browbeat Japan.
"We owe our lives to those who are honoured here," he said at the shrine on Tuesday. "Even without the Yasukuni issue, China and South Korea would criticise Japan because of other issues."
The heightened focus on Yasukuni and Japan's past war responsibility comes as Tokyo is taking a more assertive international diplomatic and military role. It dispatched non-combat troops to Iraq, has increased cooperation with the United States and is campaigning for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
It is unclear if relations with China and South Korea will improve when Koizumi leaves.
The front-runner to replace him, hawkish Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, is a supporter of the shrine and has not denied reports that he secretly prayed at Yasukuni in April. He has refused to say whether he will go there as prime minister.
"If there are misunderstandings with China and South Korea, we need to work to remove them," Abe said.Reuse content