Japan PM candidate Fukuda vows to stay away from shrine

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TOKYO, Sep 15 (Reuters) Yasuo Fukuda, the frontrunner to succeed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, says he will stay away from a Tokyo shrine seen by neighbours as a symbol of Japan's past militarism if he is chosen as the new leader.

Ties with China and South Korea had turned icy under Abe's predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, largely due to his annual visits to the 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, 71, told a news conference today where he announced his candidacy.

''Relations between countries are the same. So there is no need to do something that the other side would not like.'' Fukuda, the son of a prime minister and a former chief cabinet secretary, favours a less US-centred stance and friendly ties with China over containment.

Most factions of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have already pledged Fukuda their support, and opinion polls also show him leading hawkish former foreign minister Taro Aso, the only other candidate, in the race for the party leadership.

Aso shares many of Abe's conservative agenda aimed at bringing back traditional values and patriotism, and in the past has referred to China as a ''threat''.

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.

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.

His shock decision this week to quit stirred worries of delay in decisions on vital policies such as tax and fiscal reform.

Both candidates said, however, they would carry on with reforms, but would pay more attention to affected sectors such as rural policy.

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.

Whoever succeeds Abe faces a divided parliament, including a showdown over a Japanese naval mission in support of US-led military operations in Afghanistan.

Enabling legislation for the mission expires on Nov 1 and opposition parties are against extending it.

Fukuda called on the main opposition, the Democratic Party, for dialogue to make possible the extension of the naval mission.

''From now on, Mr Ozawa and I would need to talk about many things, to improve this country and to serve the people,'' Fukuda said, referring to Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa.

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.

With Fukuda appearing 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 Japanese ''manga'' comic books and ''anime''.

REUTERS RC RN1328

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