The annual visits by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to a Tokyo war shrine have chilled Japan's relations with China and South Korea, which suffered abuse by the Japanese military before and during World War II. But until now, those visits have not been an issue in the United States.
On April 26, Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, raised the issue in a letter to speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert. Mr. Hyde wrote that if Mr. Koizumi wants to address a joint session of Congress next month, he should first pledge not to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine again this year.
The existence of the letter was confirmed to VOA News by the International Relations Committee staff, and the contents appeared in the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun.
According to the newspaper, Hyde, a World War II veteran, wrote that another visit by Mr. Koizumi to the war shrine would offend those Americans who remember the war.
He also said it would dishonor the chamber of Congress where, following the December 1941 Japanese attack on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a state of war.
But Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, says the problem with Hyde's objection is that Mr. Koizumi never asked to address Congress during his U.S. visit.
He says Mr. Koizumi has no plans to make a speech before Congress, and has not expressed any desire to do so. He adds that such criticism from an American lawmaker is rare, and that most U.S. congressmen appear to respect freedom of religion.
Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine that honors all of Japan's modern-era war dead. Because these include a handful of men convicted of war crimes after Japan's defeat in 1945, China and South Korea consider the visits by Mr. Koizumi to be an insult.
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Tomohiko Taniguchi, says the stance of Hyde, a Republican Party congressman from Illinois, is not shared by the Republican president as far as Japan is aware.
"When President Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi met before, they may have talked about this, but I do not think I have heard anything coming out of the Bush administration about this," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also alluded to the issue of the visits during his current trip through Asia. In remarks in Seoul before his arrival here in Tokyo, he urged Japan, South Korea and China to resolve their differences.