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By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should clarify whether he will visit a Tokyo shrine seen in much of Asia as a symbol of Japan's past militarism if he really wants to improve ties with China, a former moderate leader of Abe's party said on Wednesday.
Chinese anger over Japanese politicians' visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honored, has strained ties already fraught over a dispute over tiny islands in the East China Sea.
The conservative Abe wants to restore Japan's pride in its past and ease the U.S.-drafted, pacifist constitution's restraints on the military.
The prime minister also says he is keen to improve ties with China. But China has brushed aside his calls for a summit as "grandstanding".
Abe sent a ritual offering to Yasukuni on the August 15 anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two. But, as usual, he declined to say if he would make a pilgrimage in future.
"If he is not going to Yasukuni Shrine, he should say so," Yohei Kono, a former head of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), told Reuters in an interview.
"Now he just says he won't say whether or not he will go, so even if Japan makes a proposal, China and South Korea cannot respond. On the one hand, he says the window is open (for dialogue), but leaves unclear whether he will visit the shrine or not, so they are afraid to step through the window."
Relations between Japan and South Korea are also frayed by rows over wartime history and disputed isles.
Twenty years ago this month Kono, then Japan's top government spokesman, put his name to a statement apologizing for the involvement of Japan's military in forcing "comfort women", as they are known in Japan, to work in wartime brothels. Most of the women were Asian, many Korean.
The statement has been the target of criticism by Japanese ultra-conservatives, who argue there is no proof of direct involvement by the government or military in human trafficking.
SPIRIT OF THE CONSTITUTION
Abe has questioned the so-called Kono Statement in the past. But recently, under pressure from security ally Washington, he has dropped suggestions his government might alter those official remarks or tamper with a 1995 apology by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.
Kono said frequent remarks by Japanese politicians at odds with official apologies over the war eroded international trust in Japan.
"To be seen as a country which simply says what is expedient at the time, that alters mid-stream what should be maintained and forgets or ignores past promises is certainly a minus for Japan," said Kono, who also served as foreign minister.
Kono also criticized Abe's push to revise or reinterpret Japan's U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution, seen by Japanese conservatives as a document forced on the country and out of tune with the current security environment including a rising China and unpredictable North Korea,
"We must at all costs preserve the spirit of the constitution at the time it was drafted - that we will never go to war, that we will not use force to resolve international disputes," he said. "It is not possible to cope with such changes (in the security environment) with force.
"We should do so through diplomacy."
Kono, who retired from parliament four years ago, is typical of the moderate conservatives who were once a significant force in the long-dominant LDP but who have lost ground as it tilted right. The party staged a comeback in December after three years out of power and cemented its grip in a July upper house poll that ended a deadlock in parliament.
Kono said there were still moderate LDP lawmakers but they were wary of speaking out under Abe's leadership. "I'm at a loss," he said. "When I look at the results of that upper house election, what I am saying might seem like grumbling by one of a few people off in a corner."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)