TOKYO, Sep 15 (Reuters) Yasuo Fukuda, the frontrunner to succeed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said today that he would stay away from a Tokyo shrine seen by Asian neighbours as a symbol of Japan's past militarism if he were chosen as the nation's new leader.
The 71-year-old lawmaker, known for advocating closer ties with other Asian countries, told a news conference where he announced his candidacy that he would not pay respects at Yasukuni Shrine, which honours some convicted Japanese war criminals along with the country's war dead.
''Would you do something your friend would not like? You wouldn't right?'' Fukuda said.
''Relations between countries are the same. So there is no need to do something that the other side would not like.'' Ties with China and South Korea turned icy under Abe's predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, largely due to his annual visits to Yasukuni.
Fukuda, a former chief cabinet secretary, has secured a big lead over hawkish former foreign minister Taro Aso in the race for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since Abe abruptly announced his resignation on Wednesday, as most party factions have already pledged him their support.
''So many people have said to me: 'You should stand', and hearing those voices, I've decided to tackle the current difficulties facing this nation with responsibility,'' said Fukuda, son of a prime minister.
Koizumi, who remains popular among voters, has also thrown his weight behind Fukuda, and a poll by Kyodo news agency released yesterday showed that voters favoured Fukuda 28.1 percent to 18.7 percent for Aso.
The LDP president is assured of the premiership as the ruling coalition commands a firm majority in the parliament's lower house, which picks the prime minister.
HAWKISH ASO VOWS TO FIGHT The 66-year-old Aso, himself a grandson of a prime minister, criticised the factional support for Fukuda as backroom deals, saying that it would tarnish the party's image among the public, and vowed to fight on despite being outnumbered.
''If I were to give up because of the inferiority, then the LDP would be finished. I am going to fight to the end,'' he told his supporters.
While Fukuda appears to have won the backing of most LDP lawmakers, Aso is counting on support from the party's local chapters, which also cast votes at the September 23 party poll.
Although he has a record for gaffes, Aso can work a crowd and commands a following among some youths as he is a fan of Japan's popular ''manga'' comic books and ''anime'' films.
''We need his strong character to save the country,'' Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama told the gathering of Aso supporters.
Aso shares much of Abe's conservative agenda aimed at bringing back traditional values and patriotism, and in the past has referred to China as a ''threat''.
Fukuda favours a less US-centred stance and friendly ties with China over containment.
Abe's year in power was marred by scandals involving his ministers and a devastating election defeat in July that cost his ruling coalition its majority in the upper house.
The outgoing prime minister has been in hospital since Thursday as he is suffering from intestinal problems linked to exhaustion and stress.
Abe was initially told to remain in hospital for three to four days, but is in fact unlikely to resume his official duties by Tuesday, Kyodo news agency said, citing government sources.
While no lower house election need be held until 2009, the opposition are demanding that the house be dissolved for a snap election as soon as possible, and deadlock in parliament could prompt one as well.
REUTERS GT HS1938