A visit on Monday by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to a Tokyo shrine where 14 Class-A war criminals are honoured alongside 2.5 million war dead suggests little has changed in the way he views relations with China. Mr Koizumi is in the most powerful position of any Japanese leader in the past 15 years, after a landslide victory in elections last month. Some had hoped he would use this newfound political capital to mend fences in Asia, but those hopes now appear misplaced. 'This is certain to have an unwelcome impact on foreign relations,' said Masaya Shiraishi, a professor of international relations at Waseda University in Tokyo. 'There will also be strong words and various demands made [of Japan] at the November Apec meeting,' he added, referring to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum. Adding insult to injury, more than 100 lawmakers from ruling and opposition parties paid their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday, underscoring the unbridgeable chasm in views between Japan and the rest of Asia on the issue. Mr Koizumi, whose visit this week was his fifth since he took office in 2001, insists he pays homage at Yasukuni not to glorify war, but to pray for peace. The shrine occupies a special place in the hearts of many Japanese who lost loved ones in wars dating to the 19th century. For Chinese, however, it is a reminder of the rampant nationalism that helped fuel the Japanese Imperial Army's rampage across Asia more than 60 years ago. With South Korea, China regards visits to the shrine by Japanese politicians as insensitive and insulting. Tensions over the issue have led to increasingly icy relations, not only in the political arena, but between ordinary citizens of China and Japan. Annual Japanese government surveys show a steady decline in Japanese affinity with mainland Chinese over the past 25 years to a low of 38 per cent last year, from 79 per cent in 1980. Another steep drop is likely in this year's poll. A survey published this month by the Mainichi newspaper showed affinity with China at 31 per cent across all age groups. Hong Kong, with its separate legal and economic system, tells a different story. A think-tank affiliated with Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry released a poll in July showing mutual affinity between Japanese and Hongkongers stood just higher than 60 per cent, a shade ahead of Singapore and the highest in Asia. There is no doubt, however, that sentiment on the mainland and in Hong Kong is firmly against Mr Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni. Historians in Japan and overseas have found a receptive audience by criticising the political nature of the Tokyo Tribunal on war crimes, an argument that outrages Chinese. A recent poll of 1,657 young Chinese by 21st Century - the China Daily's weekly youth English-language newspaper - showed more than half hated or disliked Japan. The ever-worsening trend in mutual perceptions between the two nations has some China hands in Tokyo close to despair. 'The state of bilateral relations is extremely worrying,' said Sakutaro Tanino, who served as Japan's ambassador in Beijing from 1998 to 2001. Mr Tanino is anxious that Japan recovers some of the almost 30 years of hard-earned diplomatic goodwill that was damaged in anti-Japan protests in China in April. But old-school views such as his are becoming increasingly drowned out by the more hawkish opinions of a new generation of lawmakers. 'Any ideas of forming an east Asian community are impossible the way things are now,' said Mr Tanino. He says many Japanese were surprised the anti-Japan protests spread to Shanghai and Hong Kong, which have large Japanese communities and strong economic links with the country. China and Japan have annual trade worth more than US$200 billion. Before the anti-Japan protests, growing disaffection was often attributed to factors on the Chinese side. Tokyo University's Ryozo Yoshino, a social psychology expert, says such phenomena as a rise in crime by Chinese nationals in Japan contributed to the antipathy. Other commentators point to a perceived lack of gratitude for the large amount of Overseas Development Assistance Japan has provided China. But a growing awareness of the rise in anti-Japan sentiment in China appears to have prompted more Japanese to question Mr Koizumi's stance on shrine visits. Until the protests in China, more Japanese supported the Yasukuni visits than opposed them. A poll by national broadcaster NHK on December 10 last year, for example, showed 46 per cent of Japanese wanted Mr Koizumi to continue his visits, while 38 per cent were opposed. Polls by major media outlets after the protests showed a gradual rise in those opposed to the practice from April. By June, many surveys were showing for the first time an outright majority of Japanese were against Mr Koizumi's visits. One showed opposition as high as 61 per cent. Some polls showed more than three-quarters of the public were dissatisfied with efforts by Mr Koizumi to improve relations with China and South Korea. In a recent speech to business and political leaders, Masaharu Takenaka, the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi's chief representative in Washington, said such polls showed most Japanese 'neither support Mr Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni nor China's persistent claim on this issue'. Citizens' groups have said Mr Koizumi's visits violate the constitutional separation of religion and state, although courts country-wide have ruled for and against this argument. When the Osaka High Court ruled last month that his visits were unconstitutional, editorials in leading newspapers said it was 'a stern warning from the judiciary'. There are signs, however, that as the memory of the April protests in China fades, more Japanese are slipping back into past patterns. Polls taken just before the Osaka court ruling showed the public was evenly split on the issue. The most recent survey, conducted at the weekend by Nippon Television Network, showed 48 per cent were in favour of the shrine visits and 46 per cent against. Opposition to Mr Koizumi's position on the shrine issue can be seen as a key indication of how the public views the Koizumi cabinet's China policy in general. Tetsuro Kato, who teaches political science at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, says this criticism stems partly from ordinary Japanese worried about growing tensions in northeast Asia, but also from two other groups in particular: a large group of business people with close China links; and those associated with the Soka Gakkai Buddhist organisation that backs the New Komeito Party, the junior partner to the Liberal Democratic Party in the ruling coalition. But political watchers have suggested that a new pro-Yasukuni - and anti-China - group is emerging. Younger Japanese are often poorly informed about the history of Sino-Japanese relations and so have difficulty in forming an objective opinion on events. Yukio Besshi, an expert on Sino-Japanese ties at Shimane University in western Japan, says the younger generation tend to view anti-Japan acts in China outside of any historical context and so support Mr Koizumi's visits to the shrine as a way of expressing their own anti-China sentiment. But on the whole, public sentiment appears to have become more sympathetic towards Beijing as a result of Mr Koizumi's perceived poor handling of China policy. A growing number of Japanese seem to think the policy of engaging China economically but opposing it politically is not constructive. Likewise, a large section of the public appear willing to alter their views on such controversial issues as Yasukuni, or disputed gas fields in the East China Sea, to secure long-term prosperity and peace in Japan and east Asia. While China was not an issue in last month's election, more Japanese want Mr Koizumi to quickly review any foreign policy that ignores the sensibilities of other Asian nations. 'Regardless of how many problems there may be on the Chinese side, more Japanese now feel it isn't worth just one-sidedly criticising China, given the importance of bilateral relations [between the two countries] in east Asia,' said Toshikazu Inoue, a professor of foreign relations at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. 'There should be an assumption that Japan and China can build a special relationship based on their shared history and culture, and close location - after all, neither country can exactly pack up and move to another neighbourhood.'