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Where emotions run deep

When Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi made a surprise visit to the Yasukuni war memorial last week, the bubble burst in neighboring China and South Korea.

Tensions between these East Asian neighbors has been brewing for some time. The history textbook issue has been one source of irritation. The South Koreans especially have been firm in demanding changes to the textbooks that would not trivialize Japan's war crimes.

China has been sore about that issue too, and Beijing has had a hot trade dispute with Tokyo to further inflame relations.

The problem that China, South Korea and some other Asian nations have with Yasukuni is that it honors all Japan's war dead including some that are considered war criminals.

Koizumi seemed to have realized the potential problems that a shrine visit would pose when he pledged not to go there. When he reneged on his promise a few days before Japan's anniversary of the WWII defeat, even some close allies were quick to show their disappointment.

The recent tensions show just how delicate the situation in Asia is these days over half a century since the end of World War II.

All Asian leaders and thinkers agree that there now is great need for close cooperation between the Asian nations on issues of trade, stabilization of regional currencies and other matters related to economics, security, culture and politics.

After seeing the furor caused by his visit, Koizumi was quick to emphasize the importance of Japan's relationship with its Asian neighbors. Japan now exports and imports more from Asia than from any other region.

For the other Asian nations, Japan is most often the largest contributor of foreign aid and the largest creditor nation. In most cases, Japan is either the largest or second largest importer and exporter of goods from and to Asian nations.

Given all this, it is amazing how easily things can get out of hand. According to one mode of thinking the present situation comes as the number of people who lived during the war quickly diminishes.

In a way, it is a time of final accounting for those whose lives were personally touched by the war. The manner in which this issue is settled will likely have a lasting effect on how Japan and its neighbors deal with each other in the new century.