Gonegi Suekichi Koyama was very young when his elder brothers died. One was killed in the Philippines, the other in Burma, during World War II. It was the memory of that loss which brought him 30 years ago to work among the spirits of the war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine. In this temple, 2.46 million Japanese, including soldiers, engineers, drivers, even the women who died nursing the wounded in every war since the 1850s, are worshipped as gods. So, too, are the soldiers who were condemned to death for war crimes during the Tokyo trials of 1946-1948. It was only the Emperor, Hirohito, who was required to give up his right to divinity when Japan lost the war. Those who manipulated him, ordered massacres and 'medical' experiments on human victims in China or simply fought in the Emperor's name now outrank him as deities. The Japanese left - and many outside Japan of all political persuasions - revile this place of flowering cherries and hungry white doves as the focus of a renewed militarism. Yet to Mr Gonegi, the Yasukuni Shrine is a place overflowing with happiness. 'Psychologically, I am very happy and fulfilled here,' he explains. There is a pleasant, gentle feel to the place. It was dedicated in 1874 by the Meiji emperor to all those who gave their lives for their country - and it is hard, nowadays, to feel angry that the millions of non-Japanese whose lives were brutally sacrificed in the process are not commemorated here. Old soldiers and their families come to remember the dead. Frail, but spirited Tsuichi Kato, 86, proudly shows off certificates of his annual climb to the summit of Mount Fuji. He comes to Yasukuni every month to pay his respects. He prays, he says, not for his own family or friends - he was in his 30s when the war broke out and so never joined an active service unit - but for everyone who sacrificed themselves for Japan. He cannot see why people associate this with militarism or a wicked past. 'There is nothing wrong with praying for the dead,' he says. Only when one visits the museum attached to the shrine, where Japanese invasions of neighbouring countries are portrayed as acts forced upon the country almost involuntarily and where the Japanese dead are portrayed as the only victims, does one begin to understand why the visit of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to the shrine earlier this year caused such an outcry. Alongside surviving examples of the explosive-packed aircraft and manned torpedoes which Japanese kamikaze fighters piloted on their devastating suicide missions against the Americans, is the first locomotive to roll into Burma on the Thailand-Burma railway built by the slave labour of British and Commonwealth prisoners of war. The plaque mentions only 'the numerous casualties during the railway construction', as if the victims had all been Japanese. After a few minutes in the museum one is less ready to listen patiently to the second old soldier who chooses September 18, the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Manchuria, to deny the Nanjing massacre ever happened and argue that the 'comfort women' should stop protesting. 'It was just a commercial relationship,' says the 74-year-old, who refuses to give his name. If the new militarism feared by Asia and the Japanese left did turn out to be real, this would be the focal point. The extreme right hark back to the temple's era as the centre of the pre-war nexus between the Shinto religion, the State, the military and the Imperial House. But can one really argue that because generations of Japanese, including the Prime Minister, ostentatiously venerate their war dead here, that Japan is in the grip of resurgent militarism? True, few Japanese, and certainly no one elsewhere in Asia, took seriously Mr Hashimoto's claim that he visited Yasukuni as a private citizen and as former chairman of the War Veterans Association, not as a leader of the country. He was the first premier since the openly militaristic Yasuhiro Nakasone, 11 years ago, to make the pilgrimage in defiance of official political taboos. Yet while Mr Nakasone made great political capital even then out of his claim that Japan must build up its armed forces and come out from under the umbrella of American protection, Mr Hashimoto has not only reaffirmed the defence agreements with the United States this year, he has also shown no inclination publicly to rattle the kendo sword over sensitive regional questions like the Diaoyu Islands either. Mr Hashimoto's government this week adopted a joint progress report with the United States in their attempts to craft new bilateral defence guidelines in the event of a military crisis in the region. The report, which is bound to be seen as a threat by China, spells out that Japan's Self Defence Forces and the US military would both be used in the event of a 'possible contingency in the region surrounding Japan, that threatened peace and security in Japan'. Yet Japan's constitution presently bans the Self Defence Forces from action if Japanese territory is not under attack. Mr Hashimoto, and the right-wing politicians in his corrupt and unpopular Liberal Democratic Party, may be ousted in next month's unpredictable elections, the first to be held under new voting rules devised to limit the power of the Liberals. Murray Sayle, Japan correspondent for London's Spectator magazine, says: 'This stuff about militarism is all rubbish. They're a nation of pacifists here.' Yosohide Soeya, professor of political science at Keio University, agrees. 'Japanese militarism is unreal. A revival of militarism is perhaps the last thing you'd see in current developments in Japan,' he says. However, notes in the guest book at the museum show that many visitors believe that while militarism is not prevalent among the Japanese public at large, it still drives a lot of powerful right-wingers in the Liberal Democratic Party and the bureaucracy. Meanwhile, most of those who worship at the Yasukuni Shrine are living in the past, not fantasizing about future conquests. And the keepers of the shrine are concerned not to stir up any more controversy. Says Gonegi Koyama, who claims to regard the Prime Minister as 'just another worshipper', the shrine should not be put into the international spotlight. 'Personally, I think it would be a good thing if we could start marking the anniversaries of victories again,' he says. 'But we have no plans to do anything like that. We know there would be criticism.'