The Shinto memorial, which enshrines 2.5 million soldiers and war criminals including wartime leader General Hideki Tojo, was the most closely watched block in Asia, where many feared a prime ministerial visit on the day Japan surrendered could plunge already strained ties to new lows.
At a memorial service to mark the end of the war, Mr Koizumi said Japan felt 'deep remorse' for the 'tremendous suffering' its colonial wars had inflicted on Asian countries and vowed his country would never to go to war again. "We have had sixty years of peace by showing our remorse," he said.
The memorial service was also attended by Emperor Akihito, whose father Hirohito famously ended Japan's disastrous campaign in August 1945 by saying "the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage" and asking the country to "endure the unendurable."
Mr Koizumi's speech essentially repeated a decade-old apology but used the politically sensitive word 'invasion' which is avoided by nationalists, many of whom were angered by Mr Koizumi's decision not visit the shrine. "He is breaking a promise he made four years ago," said General Tojo's granddaughter Yuko. "What other country cannot pay respects to its war dead. It is absolutely shameful."
The prime minister has visited Yasukuni four times since he took office in 2001, but has so far avoided going on Aug. 15th, despite a pledge to do so to nationalist supporters when he ran for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party in April 2001. The visits have proved increasingly unpopular at home amid souring relations with China and South Korea, and he seems to have decided to play it safe ahead of the crucial Sept.11 general election.
Mr Koizumi dissolved parliament last week after it rejected his plans to privatise the mammoth Japan Post and he now faces a bitter fight with 37 members of his own party that could radically reshape the country's political landscape. The prime minister is fighting to win, having already fielded alternative candidates that include several ex-beauty queens - dubbed Koizumi's assassins - against his old party colleagues. Losing the election would end Mr Koizumi's political career and finish off his one serious policy initiative.
The decision to avoid the shrine has headed off another potentially damaging spat with China and South Korea, which nevertheless expressed anger at visits by several key members of the current cabinet, including LDP Acting Secretary General Shinzo Abe who is widely tipped to take over when Mr Koizumi retires next year.
Asked why he went to the shrine, which abuts a museum that argues Japan's brutal wars in China and elsewhere were 'defensive', Mr Abe said: "I hope to convey to the world that Japan will uphold a free and democratic society and improve relations" with other countries.Reuse content