Japan PM rules out replacement for controversial war shrine

Tokyo, Japan - Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has ruled out suggestions that another memorial to war dead could replace Yasukuni shrine, whose association with militarism outrages neighboring countries.

"I think it is OK to consider building a new facility, where people can mourn without feeling uneasy. But Yasukuni shrine cannot be replaced by any other facility," Koizumi told reporters.

China and the two Koreas, which suffered bloody occupations by Japan up to 1945, have been infuriated by Koizumi's insistence on visiting the Yasukuni shrine which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead including 14 top war criminals.

A private panel to then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda proposed in 2002 to create a new, non-religious memorial to war dead that could skirt the controversy over the Shinto sanctuary.

The idea has resurfaced amid heated disputes with neighboring countries over the war shrine. Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi last month abruptly cancelled a meeting with Koizumi to protest Japanese officials' defense of visits to Yasukuni.

Incumbent Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, who is the spokesman for Koizumi's administration, said the government was still assessing public opinion about building a new memorial.

"We have not changed our basic stance that we will take into account opinions of the public and other factors" when deciding whether to build a secular memorial, Hosoda said.

Koizumi's visits to the shrine have widely been seen domestically as a way to solidify support with the conservative base of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

But seven former prime ministers have come out against any further visits by Koizumi to the shrine and even the head of an association of people who lost relatives in war urged the premier to be cautious.

The Japan War-Bereaved Association held an emergency meeting Friday after the remarks by its leader Makoto Koga. Media reports that senior members of the group were outraged over his step back on Yasukuni visits.

Koga, a senior member of the LDP who is influential with conservatives in the party, said last week that the association appreciated Koizumi's visits to the shrine but that he should consider the feelings of Asian nations.

Koizumi made his latest comment on the shrine as he prepares to meet with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun next week amid diplomatic tensions over how Japan remembers its past.

Since taking office in 2001, Koizumi has gone every year to Yasukuni, with his last visit being on January 1, 2004. He says the visits are to show respect for all war dead and to stress Japan's pacifism since its World War II defeat.

Some experts and politicians have suggested that the government build a new facility to replace Yasukuni shrine at Chidorigafuchi cemetery, an existing tomb for unknown soldiers killed in World War II.

Koizumi visited the cemetery last month for an annual government-sponsored ceremony.

Unlike Yasukuni, the Chidorigafuchi cemetery has no overt connection to religion or wartime atrocities.