Worshipping at Yasukuni shrine remains an emotional day for many older Japanese who still recall the unprecedented Aug. 15, 1945 radio address by then-Emperor Hirohito announcing that Japan would "bear the unbearable" and lay down its weapons following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But for Chinese, Koreans and other Asian victims of Japanese aggression during the first half of the 20th century, official visits to Yasukuni the Shinto shrine used during the war to whip up nationalist sentiment are a sign that Japan glorifies its militarist past and refuses to atone for wartime atrocities.
Small groups of demonstrators in China and Taiwan burned Japanese flags and chanted anti-Japan slogans on Wednesday to protest Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to the shrine on Monday. It follows two days of protests in China, South Korea, the Philippines and Japan itself.
In Beijing, police, who normally leap into action at the first whiff of protest, stood back and watched small but significant demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing and Tokyo's consulate in Shanghai.
These were the first anti-foreigner protests known to have been allowed in China since NATO aircraft bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade two years ago during the Kosovo campaign.
Despite the protests, five Cabinet ministers and at least 120 lawmakers or their representatives prayed at Yasukuni on Wednesday, bringing to nine the members of Cabinet who have made shrine visits this week.
In all, 125,000 Japanese thronged to Yasukuni, many more than the 55,000 who visited last year and the highest in recent years, a spokesman for the shrine said on condition of anonymity.
Ultrarightist trucks outside the shrine blared wartime marching music, and a brief scuffle broke out between protesters and supporters of the shrine visits. One person was injured when he was punched in the face, a police official said on condition of anonymity. No one was arrested.
Koizumi moved up his visit to Monday instead of on the anniversary because of outrage expressed from Japan's neighbors and concern among members of his own ruling coalition.
The Yasukuni shrine is not merely for those who died in World War II the souls worshipped there include virtually all Japanese war dead dating back to the late 1800s. Japan battled China for control of Korea in 1894-95, and fought with Russia over Korea and Manchuria from 1904 to 1905.
But war criminals including executed former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who led Japan during World War II are among the 2.5 million Japanese soldiers honored there.
That makes visits there very sensitive, even among Japanese, whose military history is a subject of defiant pride or deep shame, but always a hot-button issue.
Japan is already embroiled in a dispute with South Korea over a textbook that allegedly glosses over Japanese atrocities.
National broadcaster NHK said on Wednesday that most Japanese state school districts have decided not to use the textbook.
Of the 542 districts nationwide, 532 districts decided not to adopt the textbook, NHK said. The remaining 10 districts declined to disclose their decision, it added. Only six-state run schools for handicapped children in Tokyo and Ehime prefecture, in western Japan, will use the text while six private schools have also selected it, NHK said.
Koizumi's predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, got in trouble when he referred to Japan as a "divine nation." And a move to change Japanese constitution to allow offensive military forces is extremely controversial.
On Wednesday, Koizumi joined Emperor Akihito Hirohito's son in expressing regrets for the war in a secular ceremony in Tokyo that honored both military and civilian dead.
"Our country has caused many countries, especially our Asian neighbors, significant damage and pain," Koizumi said in a speech beginning the ceremony, adding that Japan can make amends by fostering peace and prosperity in the region.
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