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Japan PM and ministers avoid war shrine amid China row

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese cabinet ministers steered clear of a controversial Tokyo war shrine on Tuesday, as Japan and China struggled to soothe ties strained by a territorial dispute that has sparked protests in both countries.

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Around 70 lawmakers, including a junior member of the government from a tiny coalition party, went to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to attend an annual autumn festival, but Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his senior cabinet ministers stayed away.

Yasukuni, where 14 Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal after World War Two are honoured along with the nation’s war dead, is seen by Beijing as a symbol of Japanese militarism.

Recent signs of improving ties were clouded on Saturday when thousands of protesters marched in both China and Japan, venting anger and underscoring the fragility of relations long plagued by bitter Chinese memories of Japan’s wartime aggression and Japan’s anxiety about growing Chinese economic and military might.

“It was very regrettable that anti-Japanese protests involving some destructive activities have taken place (in China),” Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara told a news conference, referring to weekend protests.

But he added: “I don’t see that the protests at this time in China will be an obstacle to our aim of having foreign ministers’ and summit meetings between Japan and China in Hanoi.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, however, slammed Maehara for comments on Monday that China’s actions following a spat over disputed islands, including the suspension of high-level official exchanges, were “extremely hysterical.”

“We feel deeply shocked that he made such remarks,” Ma told a regular briefing in Beijing.

Strained relations eased a bit after Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao held informal talks earlier this month, and the two governments are trying to arrange a formal meeting at the end of October on the sidelines of a regional summit in Vietnam.

In Beijing, a senior Japanese ruling party lawmaker met Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and agreed that the two countries should improve relations, Kyodo news agency reported.

Yang and Satsuki Eda, a senior Japanese ruling Democratic Party lawmaker, agreed to ensure a successful meeting between Kan and Wen, Kyodo reported.

Chinese spokesman Ma would not directly answer when asked about a possible meeting between Wen and Kan, saying only that China hoped Japan could show willingness to “create conditions” for talks.

Ties deteriorated sharply last month after Japan detained a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japanese patrol ships near disputed and uninhabited isles in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

The dispute has stirred nationalist sentiment in Asia’s two biggest economies.

A group of conservative lawmakers from both ruling and opposition parties on Tuesday drafted a list of requests to government to do more to protect Japan’s territory, including setting a lighthouse and heliport on the disputed islands.

Japan’s occupation of parts of China from 1931 to 1945 is a lingering source of bitterness and relations chilled in 2001-2006 when then-premier Junichiro Koizumi made visits to Yasukuni. Koizumi’s successors have stayed away from the shrine.

Reporting by Yoko Kubota, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Yoko Nishikawa; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Huang Yan in Beijing; Editing by Alex Richardson