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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Koizumi's balancing act
PM Koizumi mounts steps to Yasukuni shrine
Koizumi (second left): Ashamed to have changed plans
By BBC News Online's Andrew Webster

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's decision to visit the Yasukuni war shrine two days before the official anniversary of the end of World War II - rather than on the anniversary itself - is being seen as an attempt to reach a delicate compromise.

On the one hand he has come under diplomatic pressure from China and South Korea not to make any visit a site that Japan's neighbours see as a potent symbol of Japanese militarism.

PM Koizumi follows Shinto priest
Koizumi also declined taking part in a Shinto religious-purification ceremony
Relations have also been strained recently by a row over a controversial school textbook, which critics say glosses over Japanese wartime atrocities.

And at home, opposition politicians have urged him not to visit the shrine.

Mr Koizumi appeared to aim for a conciliatory note by explaining he had come for emotional reasons to pay his respects to the Japanese war dead, and acknowledging the war had caused tremendous pain at home and abroad.

Nationalist constituency

But the prime minister is also a populist with nationalist leanings.

Japanese waving flags
Supporters waving Japanese flags greeted the prime minister
There has been a resurgence of nationalist politics in Japan and Mr Koizumi has questioned why complaints from foreign governments should influence a Japanese ceremony.

Opinion polls taken before the visit showed the Japanese public narrowly supported a visit on the date of the anniversary itself.

Cancelling the visit in the face of opposition from abroad could have damaged Mr Koizumi's popularity and risked relations with conservative elements in the governing coalition - neither of which he can afford as he prepares to push through tough reforms to tackle Japan's ailing economy.

Price to be paid

But, while switching the date of the visit may go some way to mitigating the political fallout, it is unlikely to be a cost-free exercise.

Protesters in Hong Kong
But the visit has provoked anger abroad
South Korea has condemned the visit and China has reacted, albeit in a relatively restrained statement, by expressing its strong indignation.

The last serving prime minister to visit the Yasukuni war shrine, Ryautaro Hashimoto, also avoided the 15 August anniversary by attending on his birthday in July 1996. However, the reaction from abroad was so severe he cancelled subsequent visits while in office.

But increasingly self-confident right-wingers will have noted Mr Koizumi's statement that he was ashamed of changing the date of his visit - but that he did not want foreign countries to doubt Japan's commitment to peace.

They want Japan to be more assertive and less inclined to apologise for its past aggression.

Some politicians within his coalition have said a change of date would be an insult to Japan's war dead and to surviving veterans.

Mr Koizumi may also have a price to pay with the general public to whom he has portrayed himself as a man of principle who does not compromise on what he believes is right.

The BBC's Charles Scanlon
"Japan's most notorious war criminals are among those honoured here"
See also:

13 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Outrage at Koizumi war shrine visit
30 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Pressure over Japan PM's shrine visit
11 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Koizumi to honour war dead
10 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Anger deepens in history book row
14 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Koizumi courts shrine controversy
14 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan's controversial war shrine
24 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Profile: Junichiro Koizumi
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