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Japanese PM candidate Vows to Stay Away from Controversial Shrine

The campaign to succeed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who announced his intention to resign earlier this week, is now officially down to two candidates, and their comments have already provided some clues to what Japan's post-Abe foreign policy might look like. Catherine Makino reports from Tokyo.

The former chief cabinet secretary, 71-year-old Yasuo Fukuda, appears to be the leading candidate to replace Mr. Abe. His opponent is the former foreign minister and current leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, 66-year-old Taro Aso.

Fukuda is a political moderate, who says his aim is to create warm relations with Japan's neighbors, especially China and South Korea. Aso, a conservative, has annoyed China in the past with disparaging remarks.

Japan's relations with the two countries deteriorated badly during the tenure of Mr. Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. A major reason was Mr. Koizumi's insistence on making regular visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 convicted war criminals among Japan's 2.5 million war dead. Japan's neighbors see the shrine and the visits as glorification of the country's militaristic past.

On Saturday, Fukuda said prime ministers should not visit the shrine, and said he would not do so if elected. He suggested removing the irritant of Yasukuni altogether by building a new memorial.

He says he supports an alternative place to honor the soldiers and civilians who died during World War II. He says there should be one centralized memorial, but he would need public support for this.

Aso has defended Mr. Koizumi's visits to the shrine in the past and hinted he might do the same. He was circumspect Saturday when asked what he would do if elected.

He says his thoughts are the same as he stated in a recent newspaper interview. Just because a memorial has been built, he says, does not mean that it will not disappear.

Both candidates say they will support an extension of the Japanese navy's support mission for U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan. Mr. Abe has also fought for an extension of the mission, in which Japanese ships in the Indian Ocean provide fuel for U.S. and other coalition forces.

The extension is opposed by the main opposition, the Democratic Party, which controls the upper house of the Japanese parliament. A survey by the Asahi Shimbun this week shows that the public is also opposed to the mission, with 45 percent against and only 35 percent in favor.

Both candidates say they support Japan's hard line against North Korea. Pyongyang wants normalized relations with Japan, but the Japanese have demanded more details about Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents during the Cold War.

Aso said Japan could not engage in a dialogue with North Korea "without pressure." Fukuda said Japan's basic stance should not change, but he suggested that Tokyo should try harder to explain its position to Pyongyang.

Most factions of the ruling party, of which both men are members, have already pledged their support to Fukuda, and opinion polls also show that the public prefers him.