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Chinese President Hu's visit to Japan boosts warming trend

Hu Jintao will play ping-pong and talk pandas and energy. The visit comes as strains over interpretations of history appear to be easing.

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Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus, says accords on environmental issues are likely because Japanese firms want to sell green technology, while China has become the largest market for nuclear power products of firms such as Hitachi and Toshiba. China replaced the United States as Japan's top trading partner last year, with two-way trade of $236 billion.

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A harsh scolding in 1998

The summit, he adds, may also continue to heal feelings hurt during former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's 1998 visit. "He was breathing fire, lecturing Japanese about coming clean from the war. It really put the winds in the sails of the Japanese nationalists by skewering Japan over history."

Relations subsequently deteriorated with Mr. Koizumi's repeated visits to the war shrine, where several convicted war criminals are memorialized, and disputes over textbook interpretations of World War II, he says. "Since Koizumi stepped down, they've been trying to repair the image," he says. "The bilateral relationship is far too important to be held hostage to history. They've decided to take history off the front pages and put it in blue-ribbon committee to solve it."

That trend was evident in the decision by Fukuda's hawkish predecessor, Shinzo Abe, to visit Beijing before Washington. "It changed the tenor of the relationship," says Mr. Kingston. "There was a tectonic shift in power in Asia away from Japan toward China. At that time, Koizumi ended all high-level meetings between governments. Abe's visit was a huge accomplishment. He created a positive momentum. I'd say bilateral relations are fairly good."

Kingston says Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao impressed Japanese last year by meeting citizens in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park and telling the Diet (parliament) that he wouldn't confront them over history. "They saw this friendly leader make a speech ... about the positive contributions that Japan has made since the war. Wen warmed up the Japanese, and I think Hu Jintao will be on a charm offensive. He's good at those things."

Many Japanese, however, say they're angry that Japan is welcoming Hu while China continues to detain Tibetans, block the Internet, and ban journalists from Tibetan areas. "To visit at this time is unbelievable," says Yusuke Hirano, a part-time worker.

Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura has asked China for more transparency over Tibet. "There is a wide gap between what the side of the Dalai Lama is saying and what the Chinese side is saying. I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle," Mr. Komura said last week. He confirmed that Japan wouldn't boycott the Olympics over Tibet, but said it hasn't decided whether to attend the opening ceremony.

Kingston says Japan does not want Tibet to derail the larger warming trend. He says Hu and Fukuda will focus more on other disputes, such as China's pumping gas out of areas that Japan also claims under the East China Sea, though he is skeptical of real progress. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said last week that a resolution was not yet close.

Hu said Sunday, however, that a resolution is possible, though he gave no time frame or details.

Even as the two countries hope for better engagement, Fukuda hopes to gain points at home by inking accords that could boost his sagging popularity.

"[Fukuda] was head of the panel that concluded that it's in Japan's best interest to create a secular alternative where the prime minister could pay respects to war dead without the ... baggage of Yasukuni," Kingston notes. "He's known to be generally sympathetic to China and moderate, rather than favoring confrontational relations."

"There were very high expectations that Fukuda could be the leader who could go beyond fence mending," says Kingston. "This visit will prove whether Fukuda has been successful."