10/18/2005, 00.00
JAPAN
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200 Japanese MPs visit Yasukuni shrine

 Tokyo does not seem too worried about protests from Beijing and Seoul. Anyhow, the three states are set to meet for important summits in the coming months.

Tokyo (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Nearly 200 Japanese MPs visited the Yasukuni shrine today after Premier Junichiro Koizumi went yesterday. No ministers were present.

Koziumi's visit on 17 October (before the four days of autumn holiday) drew bitter protests from China and South Korea; both countries view the move as a celebration of Japanese militarism. The country's 2.5 million war dead are venerated at the temple, including 14 Class A war criminals. Since his 2001 electoral victory, Koizumi has visited the temple five times. However he had not visited so far this year, following the protests sparked in the two neighbouring states.

Yesterday, Li Zhaoxing, China's Foreign Affairs Minister, said the shrine visit had "severely damaged" relations between the two countries and that a meeting between the Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers to discuss a possible summit now appeared to be in doubt.  "The Chinese government and Chinese people express strong anger," he said in an official statement. But his Japanese counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, denied his visit to China had been cancelled and said it was now more important than ever for the countries to talk.

 Wang Yi, ambassador in Tokyo, talks of "damage to Sino-Japanese relations" and "grave provocation", as the visit coincides with the "glorious return" of China's space mission.

A spokesman for the South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun said it was "unlikely" that a planned half-yearly summit with Koizumi would take place now.

Experts say Koizumi timed his visit to the shrine carefully, given the bitter reactions to it. Japan, China and South Korea have a series of important official meetings lined up in the coming months. In November there will be a 21 nation summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Busan, South Korea, where key issues like terrorism and bird flu will be discussed.

The first East Asian summit will take place in Malaysia in December, with Japan, China, South Korea and another 13 states. At the start of November, another six party meeting is expected about North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The three states will all participate, as will Russia and the United States.

Tensions with Beijing are running high over other matters too, including the exploitation of oil fields in the sea bordering the two states, and Tokyo's request for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

After the protests of Beijing and Seoul, Hiroyuki Hosoda, the head of the Japanese cabinet, expressed his conviction that "everything will continue as planned".

Public opinion in Japan is divided. According to a survey by Nippon Television, 47.6% of people interviewed were in favour of the shrine visit, while 45.5% were against. In September, the Osaka High Court ruled that the visits violate the constitutional separation between state and religion. However the day before, the High Court of Tokyo reached an opposite verdict, because the visit was "private". This year, Koizumi, for the first time, insisted that he goes to the shrine as a private citizen, without wearing traditional vestments and without signing the visitors' book (where in 2004, he had signed himself as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi"). (PB)

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