Japan lawmakers visit Yasukuni shrine for war dead

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TOKYO, Oct 18 (Reuters) Japanese lawmakers visited a shrine seen by Asian neighbours as a symbol of Japan's past militarism today, but their ranks were smaller than at the same time last year and included no cabinet ministers, the shrine said.

Visits to the Yasukuni shrine by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2006 angered China and South Korea, because it honours some convicted war criminals along with the country's war dead.

But Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe, avoided the shrine during his year in office, and current Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who took over from Abe last month, has said he will not go.

A spokesman for the shrine in central Tokyo said 67 lawmakers paid their respects at Yasukuni's autumn festival, down from 84 members of parliament who visited last year.

No cabinet ministers were seen, the spokesman said, although media reports said some junior cabinet members made visits.

Abe, who had paid his respects to Yasukuni publicly at the shrine before he took office in 2006, sought to improve ties with China as prime minister by meeting its leaders and staying away from the shrine.

But in April, without visiting the shrine, he offered it a potted masakaki tree -- seen as divine in the Shinto religion -- in an apparent nod to conservative supporters while trying to keep improving ties with China on track.

Fukuda, who advocates friendlier ties with other Asian countries, has been clearer in ruling out visits to the shrine.

''Would you do something your friend would not like? You wouldn't, right?'' Fukuda told a news conference when announcing his candidacy for the leadership last month.

REUTERS SKB ND1542

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