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(photo credit: AP)
Japan's rising sun flag flew at the Yasukuni war shrine and tourists thronged the grounds Monday in anticipation of the event of the year: a possible pilgrimage by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Koizumi, whose previous five visits to the shrine as prime minister have outraged China and South Korea, hinted strongly last week that he would pray there again this Tuesday - the anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender - despite mounting opposition.
While the prime minister, who will step down in September, has refused to say clearly whether he would go to Yasukuni, shrine supporters say he is bound by a promise to pray there on Aug. 15 to honor the souls of Japan's war dead.
"Other countries shouldn't interfere, and I think he's fulfilling his personal beliefs," said Suniko Yamashita, 74, whose father died in World War II. "Prime Minister Koizumi should visit the shrine tomorrow, and I think he will."
Opponents who consider the shrine a glorification of Japan's past militarism have been mounting protests in recent days to urge Koizumi to stay away and call on Tokyo to more fully atone for its pre-1945 aggression.
Yasukuni honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including war criminals executed after World War II. The shrine played a high-profile role in promoting wartime nationalism, and even today it hosts a museum that seeks to justify Japan's invasions of its neighbors.
"Visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese political leaders mean that Japan is not taking its wartime responsibility seriously," said Ryoichi Hattori, an organizer of anti-shrine protests.
"Prime Minister Koizumi says it's a matter of one's heart, then what about the feelings of many Asians and families of the war dead who feel hurt by his visits?," Hattori added.
Hattori's group planned a further candlelight Monday night in western Tokyo. About 1,000 anti-Yasukuni protesters marched near the shrine on Sunday night.
The rally followed similar, but smaller candlelight vigils Friday and Saturday and drew demonstrators from Taiwan, South Korea and all over Japan.
The Koizumi visits have triggered fierce protests in China and South Korea, two countries that suffered deeply under Japanese militarism. Both have refused to hold summits with Koizumi unless he stops the pilgrimages.
Such a visit on Tuesday, a symbolic day remembered with sadness in Japan but joy elsewhere in Asia, is certain to draw loud opposition from Beijing and Seoul. Koizumi has never gone on Aug. 15 as prime minister.
The visits have split Japanese opinion down the middle.
Supporters say Koizumi has the right to honor those who died for the country, while China and South Korea have no business interfering in Japan's internal affairs.
Opponents, however, have urged Koizumi not to antagonize Japan's neighbors. Some have filed lawsuits against the visits, saying they violate the constitutional division of religion and state. One such suit was recently rejected by the Supreme Court.
It was unclear whether the shrine friction would continue after Koizumi steps down.
The front-runner to replace him, hawkish Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, is a supporter of the shrine and has not denied reports that he secretly prayed at Yasukuni in April. He has refused to say whether he would go there as prime minister.