Japan's Foreign Minister is calling on China to show more transparency in military affairs, and says the issue of visits by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to a war shrine should not hinder relations with Japan's Asia neighbors.

In his first major policy speech since taking office, Japanese foreign Minister Taro Aso on Wednesday called for Japan to be regarded as the "thought leader" of Asia.

Mr. Aso, a hard line conservative seen by political pundits as a strong contender to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi next September, said Japan had been a "trail-blazer" in modernizing its economy and political system, and deserved credit for that.

He welcomed China's emergence as an economic competitor, but he said Beijing's lack of transparency about its military was counterproductive to regional peace.

"This lack of transparency in the military sector first and foremost makes it necessary for China to continuously explain to the world community that its rise is a peaceful one," he said.

He also called on the China's communist leaders to institute democratic political system.

Tokyo's diplomatic ties with China and South Korea are at their worst in decades, largely because of annual visits by Mr. Koizumi to the Yasukuni shrine. The shrine is regarded by many Asians as a symbol of Japan's militarist past, because a number of prominent convicted war criminals are honored there along with Japan's other war dead.

Mr. Aso, while saying Japan needs to reflect on the pain caused by its colonialism and military aggression during the 20th Century, says this history should not hinder future relations.

"It is important first that we do not allow isolated issues to impair progress as a whole, and second, that we overcome the past through a spirit of reconciliation and collaboration," added Mr. Aso.

Meeting with reporters just prior to Mr. Aso's speech, South Korean Ambassador Ra Jong Yil blamed Japanese leaders for the chilly status quo. He said some influential Japanese keep "rubbing salt" in old wounds by reviving memories of the unhappy past. He defended decisions by Seoul and Beijing not to have their leaders meet with the Japanese prime minister.

"Just meeting for the sake of meetings do not serve any purpose, I think," said Mr. Ra.

Foreign Minister Aso said the Chinese and South Korean peoples should acknowledge all that Japan has done for the region since the end of World War Two, as that demonstrates the country's desire not to repeat the suffering it caused in the past.