TOKYO — It was a simple gesture lasting a few minutes at most Monday--an entrance and a bow--yet it provoked a tidal wave of anger in Japan and throughout Asia, even inciting 20 South Koreans to chop off their little fingers.
Wearing a morning coat and trailing a few steps behind a Shinto priest clad in a beige robe and a glittering black hat, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi climbed a set of wooden stairs in a 132-year-old shrine commemorating Japan's 2.46 million war dead and bowed deeply before an altar.
Helicopters hovered like mosquitoes overhead, disrupting what was to have been a tranquil moment in the sheltered complex in central Tokyo. Meanwhile, hundreds of people outside waved Japanese flags and shouted "Banzai!"
South Korea and China, which had warned of their anger should Koizumi make his planned visit, immediately denounced it as evidence of Japan's insensitivity and lack of remorse for its militaristic past--particularly because 14 Class A war criminals are memorialized at the Yasukuni Shrine.
Meanwhile, many Japanese who favored Koizumi's visit were left disappointed. Because of the domestic and international pressure, the prime minister opted at the last minute to make his stop Monday, two days ahead of when he had vowed during his spring election campaign that he would visit. The later date, Aug. 15, is replete with symbolism, since it is observed here as the anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender, and Koizumi said that in changing his plans, he had considered the feelings of foreign countries that had voiced objections to the pilgrimage.
Shoichi Nakagawa, a parliament member and leader of a nonpartisan group supporting the visit, said he was "very disappointed" that it was moved forward.
"I asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda what happened to Koizumi's promise that he always does what he pledges to do," Nakagawa said.
Opposition political parties criticized Koizumi for violating the constitutionally mandated separation of religion and government, since shrines are part of the Shinto faith. Other observers branded the prime minister a nationalist in reformer's clothing.
"He says, 'I'll go to Yasukuni first, and then let them complain,' " said Hidekazu Kawai, a comparative politics professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. "He's a right-winger. Policy is hardly discussed."
The visit is likely to cost the popular Koizumi some support at home and weaken his credibility among his Asian neighbors. Japan has been under near-constant diplomatic attack in recent years for insensitivity to those nations it colonized, for misrepresenting wartime aggressions in school textbooks and for failing to own up to its past or engage in the kind of soul-searching about its history that Germany, for example, has.
Koizumi was the first prime minister since 1985 to visit the shrine in mid-August. Yasuhiro Nakasone visited in August of that year but was denounced so widely that he canceled a return the following year. Kiichi Miyazawa paid a quiet visit in fall 1992, and Ryutaro Hashimoto came on his birthday in July 1996 but insisted that he did so as a private citizen.
Immediately after paying homage Monday, a somber Koizumi told reporters that he wasn't saying whether his visit was official or private.
"Junichiro Koizumi, who is the prime minister, made a heartfelt visit. That's all there is to it," he said.
He said he didn't make the traditional Shinto offerings of money or of a double-bow and clapping, but rather performed a simple bow and a few days earlier paid his own money for two floral arrangements prominently displayed in the inner sanctum.
"It's long been my conviction that peace and prosperity were built on the sacrifice of those who died in World War II and other wars, and they have my heartfelt respect and gratitude," he said.
Asked whether his respect included the war criminals memorialized at the site, among them World War II Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, Koizumi replied, "I went to pay respects to many killed in war, not any particular groups or individuals."
In a statement, he also acknowledged that during the war, "Japan caused tremendous suffering to many people of the world, including its own people," and that it "imposed, through its colonial rule and aggression, immeasurable ravages and suffering, particularly to the people of the neighboring countries in Asia."
China nevertheless denounced the visit, suggesting that Japan is not fully repentant for its wartime aggression. According to the official New China News Agency, the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing summoned the Japanese ambassador to express "strong indignation."