Japanese FM wants secular, state-run war shrine

Tokyo, Japan - Foreign Minister Taro Aso, seeking to become Japan's next prime minister, has called for a controversial war shrine to be put under control of the state, which would decide whether it should continue to honour war criminals.

Aso, usually known as a conservative hawk, said the Yasukuni shrine should be stripped of its Shinto religious affiliation and voiced hope the emperor would one day be able to visit it.

"What we need to do is to put the Yasukuni shrine as far away as possible from politics to keep it as a tranquil place for prayer," said Aso, who trails in the premiership race behind Shinzo Abe, a staunch shrine backer.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who steps down next month, has gone each year to Yasukuni shrine and speculation is rife he will visit a final time on August 15, the sensitive anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender.

The shrine honors 2.5 million war dead including 14 top criminals from World War II.

Koizumi's pilgrimages have infuriated China and

South Korea, which hold bitter memories of Japanese occupation.

Aso called for the shrine to voluntarily turn itself into a state institution, with parliament to decide who is honored. Yasukuni's top priest secretly enshrined the 14 World War II leaders in 1978.

Public support for Koizumi's visits has slipped since documents were made public last month showing that wartime emperor Hirohito stopped going to Yasukuni because it honored war criminals. His son Emperor Akihito has never gone since assuming the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989.

"Tens of thousands of soldiers died crying 'Long live the emperor!', remembering their home towns and families," said Aso, who is related by marriage to the imperial family. "Therefore I strongly hope the emperor can visit Yasukuni shrine."

He denied his proposal was due to criticism from neighboring countries and said the issue of war criminals' names was not the first priority in resolving the controversy.

"Some people, including not a small number of parliament members, argue that separation of particular figures from the shrine is necessary. But for me, this argument comes from a skewed idea which does not see the essence of the matter," Aso said.

The Yasukuni shrine was built in 1869 as the country westernized and installed Shinto as its state religion. US occupation authorities forced it to become a private religious institution after World War II.

Japanese pacifists and religious minorities have also filed a string of lawsuits alleging Koizumi's pilgrimages violate the constitutional separation of religion and state.

"The fact that the Yasukuni shrine is a religious institution prevents it from being a calm environment as the issue arises of the separation of state and religion," said Aso, who comes from a prominent Christian political family.

Some political analysts doubted Aso's proposal would work.

If the shrine became a state institution without separating war criminals, it could violate the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty under which Japan accepted the validity of post-war trials, "not to mention angering China and South Korea," said analyst Minoru Morita.

"Aso certainly wanted to show off his independent views on Yasukuni issue as a candidate, but what he says is unrealistic as it relies on the shrine's voluntary will to dissolve itself," said Morita.