When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi bowed before a Tokyo war shrine on Monday, the response in Asia was swift: South Korea said an upcoming summit with Japan could be scuttled, and China called the visit a provocation. Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the country's war dead, including executed World War II criminals, was a blow to Tokyo's relations with its neighbors and threatened to reverse recent progress in mending their frayed ties.
The visit was Koizumi's fifth to Yasukuni since becoming prime minister in April 2001, and came despite a recent court decision that ruled the visits violate Japan's constitutional division of religion and the state.
The prime minister argued that he made the visit as a private citizen and to pray for peace. He also suggested the protests constituted foreign interference in internal Japanese affairs.
"A foreign government should not take issue with the way the Japanese express condolences to the Japanese war dead as well as the world's war dead," he told a group of reporters.
But the immediate protests from Seoul and Beijing reflected the deep sensitivity in Asia to Yasukuni's militarist symbolism. Not only does the shrine honor among its "deities" executed war criminals, but it hosts a museum that depicts Japanese conquest of Asia in the 1930s and 40s as a just cause.
"Mr. Koizumi blew a chance to mend Japan's troubled relations with China and South Korea. I'm afraid Japan's ties with them could fall dangerously low," said political commentator Minoru Morita.
Within minutes of the morning visit to Yasukuni, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon summoned Japanese Ambassador Shotaro Oshima in Seoul to protest, the AP says.
"Our government has repeatedly requested that he not visit the shrine, which enshrines war criminals who inflicted indescribable suffering and pain in the past," Ban told reporters.
Later Monday, South Korea's presidential spokesman Kim Man-soo said a summit between President Roh Moo-hyun and Koizumi scheduled later this year would be "difficult unless there is a significant change in the situation."
Wang Yi, the Chinese ambassador to Japan, lodged a protest with Japan's Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, saying that Koizumi's visit "hurts the feelings of people in China and other Asian countries," according to Akira Chiba, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.
Wang also said that the visit was "a serious provocation to the Chinese people" and that the prime minister should take responsibility for undermining bilateral ties, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Japan's embassy in Beijing issued a warning urging Japanese citizens to be cautious, recalling the violent anti-Japan protests in several Chinese cities in April, in which demonstrators enraged over nationalist Japanese history textbooks threw stones at the Japanese Embassy and attacked Japan-related businesses.
Its embassy in Seoul issued a similar warning.
Japan's 2.5 million war dead are worshipped as deities at Yasukuni, a shrine belonging to Japan's native Shinto religion.