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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a Tokyo shrine for the war dead are not the subject of widespread criticism among U.S. lawmakers, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said on Tuesday.
In the latest sign of controversy over the prime minister's shrine visits, a senior U.S. lawmaker said in a letter that Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni shrine raised questions about his suitability to speak to the U.S. Congress.
Japan's relations with China and South Korea have been chilled by Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni, which honours some war criminals along with Japan's 2.5 million war dead.
"If the prime minister's true intentions regarding visits to Yasukuni aren't being understood, we need to make efforts so they will be understood," Abe told a news conference.
"But I think that many members (of Congress) have not made criticisms from such a perspective... Based on an understanding of the importance of freedom of religion, I don't think there is much criticism like that," he said.
Koizumi, who last visited Yasukuni in October, has repeatedly said his visits to Yasukuni are meant to pray for peace and pay respects to Japan's war dead.
A spokesman for Henry Hyde, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, said on Monday that Hyde had raised concerns about Koizumi's shrine visits in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert in late April.
"It is a letter in which the chairman does raise concerns about the efficacy of an invitation to the Japanese prime minister, who continues to make controversial visits to the Yasukuni shrine," said the spokesman.
The speaker's office confirmed receiving the letter but had no further comment on its contents or on a possible invitation to Koizumi to address Congress during a trip by Koizumi to the United States that is expected in June.
The spokesman declined to discuss the contents of the letter, which had come to light in a report by Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
The Asahi quotes the letter from Hyde, an Illinois Republican and World War Two veteran, as calling for assurances from Koizumi the Japanese leader would not visit Yasukuni soon after making a speech to a joint session of Congress during his U.S. visit.
According to the Asahi, Hyde warned that a visit to Yasukuni would be an affront to older Americans who remember World War Two and would dishonour the site in Congress where President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his "day of infamy" speech after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Last year, Hyde voiced concerns about Koizumi's Yasukuni visits and his committee held a hearing on tensions in Japan's ties with China and South Korea over the shrine issue.
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington)
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