Koizumi's nuances lost amid the noise of Yasukuni's nationalistic mobs
He may have offered words of remorse and regret, but Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was feted as a hero by the nationalistic mobs who rallied at Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine yesterday to witness his first visit on the anniversary of Japan's wartime surrender.
Solemn Shinto rites gave way to roars of flag-waving approval from several hundred people as Mr Koizumi silently turned to face them after praying at the main Yasukuni temple, where 14 Class-A war criminals are honoured among Japan's 2.5 million war dead.
The gathering, considered one of the biggest in recent years, ran the full gamut of Japan's ultranationalist underworld, from young punks with spiky hair and rising sun bandanas to ranks of booted, bull-necked heavies in quasi-military uniforms. Their presence was allowed to dominate the shrine throughout the morning, even as ordinary citizens filed in to offer their own prayers on the 61st anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of the second world war.
The presence of conservative thugs highlighted the awkward legacy Mr Koizumi is leaving his successor, with his visit yesterday raising the political stakes over Yasukuni.
Several dozen men converged on a bus carrying left-wing Zengakuren activists shortly before Mr Koizumi's arrival at 7.40am (Japan time).
The bus was rocked as the crowd, shouting and spitting, tried to break its windows before police intervened.
As black vans belting out nationalistic songs patrolled the perimeter, groups draped banners along the main approach to the shrine. 'Thanks to the Heroic Souls who are the Foundation of this Country,' one banner read. Mr Koizumi's sixth visit as premier, but his first on the anniversary of Japan's surrender, fulfilled a campaign pledge he made six years ago.
The right-wing groups hung around after his departure, some having themselves photographed with the older men in dark suits who emerged with bodyguards from limousines with blacked-out windows.
Others queued for the opening of the Yasukuni museum next to the shrine, an institution widely dismissed by critics as barely veiled propaganda for the nationalists, its illustrated time-lines whitewashing the Nanking massacre and serving to show how Japan 'saved' Asia from western imperialism.
Their presence was hardly representative of the intensifying national debate over Yasukuni. A variety of polls have suggested slightly more than a half of Japanese adults do not support Mr Koizumi's visits. Ordinary visitors to the shrine yesterday expressed a wide range of emotions and memories.
'I wouldn't have come today if thought it was going to be like this, hijacked by these mobs,' said office worker Atika Mishima.
'It is not necessarily good for Mr Koizumi. It is not about re-writing history ... it is about praying for the souls of my relatives. It is supposed to be a place of solemn reflection. All the political nonsense has to end, somehow.'
Mr Koizumi repeated his own nuances. He insisted he was visiting privately and not as prime minister, and that he was not there to honour the Class-A war criminals.
'I paid the visit with respect and thanks from the bottom of my heart to those who were forced to give up their lives on the battlefields against their will,' he said. 'It is not good for China and South Korea to agree to hold summit talks on condition that I stop paying visits to the shrine ... it is not a diplomatic card.'
Those nuances have yet to completely take hold across his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party. His Finance Minister, Sadakazu Tanigaki, one of the contenders to replace Mr Koizumi next month, said he would not continue such visits.
Chief Cabinet Secretary and frontrunner Shinzo Abe was conspicuous by his absence.
Speaking of 'future-oriented relations', he said: 'Efforts must be made to clear up China and South Korea's misunderstandings.'
Those efforts could now be harder than ever after Mr Koizumi's visit yesterday.
The house and office of a lawmaker critical of Mr Koizumi's visit to the shrine burned down yesterday.
The fire destroyed the buildings used by Koichi Kato in Yamagata prefecture, northern Japan. A man was found collapsed on the premises with wounds to his abdomen and rushed to a hospital. Police suspect the man lit the fire and attempted suicide.
Additional reporting by Julian Ryall
Chronology of Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine
June 1869: Tokyo Shokonsha shrine established to commemorate Japanese civil war dead.
June 1879: Name changed to Yasukuni. Shrine now to commemorate all Japanese war dead.
August 15, 1945: Japan agrees to surrender unconditionally to Allied forces, ending World War II.
August 15, 1975: Prime Minister Takeo Miki becomes first premier to visit Yasukuni on anniversary of the end of World War II.
October 17, 1978: Yasukuni begins honouring wartime Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo and 13 other Class-A war criminals.
August 15, 1985: Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone makes official visit to Yasukuni.
July 29, 1996: Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto visits Yasukuni, first premier to do so in 11 years.
April 18, 2001: Junichiro Koizumi, running for the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, pledges he will visit Yasukuni on August 15 as premier.
August 13, 2001: Prime Minister Koizumi visits Yasukuni, becoming the first premier to visit in five years. Koizumi will visit the shrine annually five more times.
April 15, 2006: Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, first in line to replace Koizumi, reportedly visits Yasukuni.
August 15: Koizumi pays his sixth visit to Yasukuni.
There are 14 Class-A Japanese World War II criminals who are honoured at the Yasukuni Shrine,
along with 2.5 million war dead. Of the 14, seven were hanged after being convicted, four died after
they were sentenced to life imprisonment and another died after being sentenced to a 20-year
imprisonment. The two others died before the ruling was handed down.
The 14 Class-A war criminals include:
General Hideki Tojo (prime minister, right, when Japan launched the attack on Pearl Harbor)
General Seishiro Itagaki (masterminded the 1931 train attack in Liutiaogou, which triggered the Manchuria Incident, a pretext for the invasion of Manchuria)
General Kenji Dohihara (an architect of Japan?s military operations in Manchuria)
General Iwane Matsui (commander responsible for the Nanking Massacre, right, in 1937)
General Heitaro Kimura (responsible for building the infamous Burma Railway)
Lieutenant-General Akira Muto (chief of operations behind the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in1937, which triggered the Second Sino-Japanese War)
Admiral Osami Nagano (chief of the naval general staff in 1941)