A senior official in Japan's ruling coalition said on Tuesday that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should stop his annual visits to a shrine for war dead that is seen by China and other neighbors as a symbol of wartime militarism.
Akihiro Ohta, acting secretary-general of the New Komeito Party, said the government should instead build a national war memorial where Japanese leaders could visit without upsetting Asian neighbors who were victims of Japan's past militarism.
"We think the prime minister should refrain from making official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine," Ohta said, referring to the Tokyo shrine where 14 Class-A WWII war criminals are honored along with Japan's 2.5 million war dead.
"It's not because China says so, but because that's better for our national interests," added Ohta, seen as a strong candidate to become head of the New Komeito Party, whose support Koizumi needs to ensure smooth passage of bills in parliament.
Ohta said Japan needed China's cooperation in the effort to resolve the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's nuclear ambitions and added that economic ties with China -- now Japan's largest trading partner -- could not be held hostage to the row over Yasukuni.
Sino-Japanese relations chilled markedly after Koizumi took office in 2001 and began making annual visits to Yasukuni. They deteriorated further last month after violent anti-Japanese demonstrations broke out in Chinese cities.
Koizumi has said he pays his respects at Yasukuni to honor Japan's war dead and pray for peace, and that other countries should not interfere.
China, for its part, says Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni constitute the most sensitive issue in bilateral ties and should be halted. The criticism has led to an anti-China backlash in Japan.
"What's important is to halt the cycle of anti-Japanese sentiment (in China) leading to anti-China feelings (in Japan)," Ohta said.
Ohta said senior party officials have been telling Koizumi repeatedly to give up the visits, but added that the New Komeito would not leave the coalition with Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party even if the prime minister were to ignore its calls.
Koizumi has remained coy about a future visit, reiterating to reporters on Tuesday that he would make an "appropriate decision" on the issue. He last went to Yasukuni in January 2004.
Japanese voters are divided over the issue, and a media poll released on Tuesday showed that 49 percent of the respondents surveyed believe that Koizumi should halt his Yasukuni visits.
Thirty-seven percent of respondents to the weekend poll by the liberal Asahi Shimbun newspaper said he should continue.
(Chinadaily.com.cn via agencies, June 1, 2005)