The sound of TV station helicopters whirling above the massive Shinto shrine drowned out the chorus of cicadas in the humid summer air as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid homage on Monday to the nation’s war dead.
A stern-faced Koizumi, attired in a morning suit and accompanied by aides and security police, entered the inner sanctum of Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, stood silent, and bowed once as newspaper photographers flashed away and television networks broke into their usual programs to show it all live.
“Did you get to see him?” one woman asked her friend after Koizumi had gone inside. “I got a peek,” she told her disappointed companion who was not as fortunate.
The women were part of a crowd of thousands which gathered to watch Koizumi visit Yasukuni, where war criminals are also honored — a move that sparked criticism at home and angered Asian nations which suffered from Japan’s wartime aggression.
Also in the crowd were right-wingers pleased with Koizumi’s decision.
“Thank you, prime minister, thank you,” some supporters yelled as he made the visit.
Radical left-wing student protesters wearing face-masks screamed their opposition, and elderly South Koreans shouted angrily at a visit they see as a revival of Japanese militarism.
“I want to cry I am so angry. It’s impossible for me to suppress my anger,” said 57-year-old Kim Tae Sun, whose father was reported killed in China in 1945 after being conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army.
A large part of the crowd, however, appeared to be the usual fans of the popular prime minister, jostling for a look at the lion-maned leader whom his admirers call “Jun-chan”.
Young couples, garbed in the latest fashions and their hair dyed a trendy brown or blond, also wandered around the compound curiously, with cameras dangling from their necks.
Hordes of reporters scurried to cover the hastily announced pilgrimage and found they were obliged to follow Shinto custom by rinsing their hands and mouths to purify them before entering the inner shrine.
Koizumi first pledged to make a visit on August 15 during an April campaign to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a move many say was aimed at winning support from a powerful group of war veterans and politicians who feel the war should be laid to rest now that more than 50 years have passed.