Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reiterated Wednesday that he has no intention to stop visiting a Tokyo war shrine despite criticism from China and South Korea.
Koizumi's visit last month to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead including convicted war criminals, have strained Japan's relations with its neighbor countries.
"The Yasukuni issue doesn't make a diplomatic card," Koizumi said in a speech to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Kyodo News agency reported. "Despite recent tensions, I think (the issue) will be understood in the long run."
Koizumi added that the shrine issue should not affect Japan's growing economic ties with its Asian neighbors, Kyodo said.
Despite growing trade between the economic powerhouses, diplomatic relations between China and Japan have sunk to their lowest point in decades amid a series of territorial disputes and disagreements over interpretations of wartime history.
Relations worsened last month when Koizumi visited the shrine for the fifth time since taking office in 2001, prompting protests from China and South Korea.
"(The visits) are based on right to freedom of spirit. I have no idea why even some Japanese criticize (my visits), nor why China and South Korea criticize them," Koizumi said Wednesday. He has previously said he prays at the shrine for peace.
Last week, China's ambassador to Tokyo called the shrine visits the most pressing issue facing their countries, and said it needs to be resolved as quickly as possible.
A row over undersea gas deposits, ownership of islets in the East China Sea and differences over Japan's wartime aggression have also hurt Tokyo's relations with Beijing, the AP reports.