Candidates step up drive to win vote

TOKYO, Reuters

Looking to grab the conservative vote, contenders to become Japan’s next prime minister shifted their attention on Tuesday to observing traditional rites and away from their agendas to revive the enfeebled economy.

With just one week to go before lawmakers and local chapters of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) vote for a new president to replace unpopular Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, the four candidates were all stepping up their drive to win votes.

Reformist Junichiro Koizumi, hoping for an upset victory over front-runner, ex-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, took to the streets again to do what be does best — appeal to the public.

And in an attempt to win voters from one of Hashimoto’s conservative support bases, an association of families of Japan’s war dead, Koizumi was quoting as saying he would visit a controversial war shrine if he wins.

“If I am elected prime minister, I will make an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine,” the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper quoted Koizumi as saying.

Visits by Japanese prime ministers and cabinet members to the shrine on the August 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War Two are roundly condemned by its Asian neighbors as an insult to the victims of the Imperial Army’s aggression half a century ago.

The Shinto religious shrine honors convicted war criminals along with the 2.6 million Japanese who have died in wars since the 19th century.

Others had the same idea.

A big-spending, straight-talking dark horse candidate, LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei visited the shrine.

“Because I will be running as prime minister, I felt the need to report to those who died for the country,” he said, dismissing charges that he was playing to the conservative gallery.

And Hashimoto too had his say on the issue, saying for the first time that his visit to the shrine when he was prime minister in 1996 — and when he stirred anger across Asia — had been in an official capacity.

“I made an official visit, and as a result, it became a big problem,” Hashimoto told reporters. “I have stopped going since.”

But he did not rule out future visits. “Frankly, I rather want to visit. But I doubt if it is right for this issue to be a focus (of the LDP race),” he told reporters.