Former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori said yesterday the next head of government should stay away from a controversial war shrine to mend fraying ties with China and South Korea.
Two members of Mori's faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda, are preparing for a party leadership election in September, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi steps down.
The leader of the ruling party automatically becomes the prime minister because the LDP holds most seats in parliament.
Since he came to power in 2001, Koizumi has annually visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honors 2.5 million war dead including 14 top war criminals and is seen by China and South Korea as a symbol of militarism.
"If it's important to improve [relations with South Korea and China], it's better not to go" to the shrine, Mori said in a television talk show.
Koizumi says that his visits are to honor all victims of war and recommit Japan to pacifism. But they have infuriated victims of Japan's wartime aggression, particularly China and South Korea.
Both countries suffered brutal Japanese occupation before and during World War II, and have been angered by the prime minister's annual visits. On several occasions in both countries popular discontent has led to street demonstrations.
"Prime Minister Koizumi says it's a matter of spirituality. But that has become a matter of politics. This does not benefit Japan's national interest," Mori said.
Abe, chief Cabinet secretary and seen as a front-runner to succeed Koizumi, has said visits to the shrine will not be part of his political platform.
Fukuda, a former chief Cabinet secretary who has good connections in Beijing and Washington, has criticized Koizumi's visits.
"It is a truly unhappy situation," Fukuda told an audience in the industrial city of Nagoya on Saturday, referring to the chilling of relations with Japan's Asian neighbors, the daily Mainichi Shimbun reported.
"Saying `What's wrong with going to Yasukuni?' makes them emotional. Having the respective leaders and peoples get emotional is the worst situation," it quoted Fukuda as saying.
Abe, known for his hawkish views on China and North Korea, consistently tops public opinion polls on who should succeed Koizumi.
But in recent weeks some polls have shown Fukuda, one of Abe's predecessors as chief Cabinet secretary, making gains, with voters citing concerns about Japanese diplomacy.