New Japan PM Noda to avoid controversial shrine

TOKYO, Sept 2, 2011 (AFP) - New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Friday promised neither he nor his ministers will visit the controversial Yasukuni war shrine.

The pledge came despite Noda's past remarks that Japan's "Class A" war criminals from the World War II, honoured at the Shinto sanctuary, are no longer considered "criminals" because of treaties and domestic laws.

"The prime minister and cabinet ministers shall refrain from visiting the shrine," Noda told a press conference.

The shrine honours the souls of 2.5 million war dead -- including 14 prominent war criminals -- and is often seen as a symbol of Japan's past aggression.

Former conservative prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who led the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), openly prayed once a year at the shrine during his 2001-2006 tenure.

Beijing and Seoul had refused to hold summits with Koizumi because of the visits.

Noda had criticised Koizumi, saying the actions have caused diplomatic problems.

But Noda wrote in 2005 to the popular premier that post-WWII treaties and Japanese laws have restored the honours of those who were judged as "Class A" war criminals, a stance he maintained when asked about it last month.

Since Koizumi's departure, five Japanese prime ministers of varying beliefs either avoided open discussions about visiting the shrine or did not visit there.

Making his pledge to avoid Yasukuni shrine, Noda also reiterated his resolve to enhance ties with Asian neighbors, particularly China and South Korea.

Seoul on Tuesday urged Noda to "look squarely" at the past.

China's state news agency Xinhua said Monday that "new foreign policy initiatives may be initially thwarted by controversial remarks he (Noda) made about Japanese wartime leaders".

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