The leaders of China and South Korea, in Japan for a weekend summit, toured Japan’s devastated north yesterday to show their support for earthquake and tsunami recovery efforts.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak arrived in Sendai city late yesterday morning and immediately headed to devastated nearby areas, offering a wreath of flowers and a silent prayer.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) arrived later and followed a similar schedule. The two leaders met up with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Fukushima city before heading to Tokyo for a banquet before summit talks today.
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami left more than 24,000 people dead or missing and sparked an ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. China and South Korea have been critical of Japan’s response to the nuclear crisis, particularly about the release of radiation into the ocean.
Japan hopes the visit by the two leaders will help smooth over concerns. The summit was expected to focus on the nuclear crisis and ways for each country to help Japan’s recovery.
Tokyo had reportedly wanted to formally start the summit in Fukushima, but that plan had to be scrapped because of logistical issues. Fukushima city is about 60km from the crippled nuclear plant.
After placing the flowers in a rubble-covered neighborhood, Lee said South Korea would do all it can to help Japan.
Wen spent about a half hour at the Tatekoshi Elementary School in Natori. The school gym is serving as a shelter for 123 people.
He sat down with four families and spoke through an interpreter. He gave out gifts, including stuffed pandas, wind-up flashlights and radios.
While visiting the area, Wen said China is willing to increase agricultural imports from Japan, provided they meet safety standards.
“China is willing to continue relaxation toward importing Japanese agricultural and other goods, with the condition that safety is assured,” Wen, dressed in trainers, blue shirt and a dark jacket, told reporters in Natori, a northeastern town heavily wrecked by the tsunami.
His remarks signaled a softening of Beijing’s stance after trade ministers from China and South Korea last month rebuffed Tokyo’s call for more “reasonable” and limited restrictions.
The meeting of three neighbors with a history of long-running feuds has been billed as an opportunity to improve their ties in the aftermath of the disaster, which wiped out whole coastal communities.
However, commentators have been skeptical about whether the outpouring of sympathy could be sufficient to overcome centuries of mistrust and suspicion rooted in bitter memories of Japan’s past military aggression.
Wen reiterated Beijing’s offer of help in reconstruction and said he hoped aid from China would help improve the often chilly relations between the world’s second and third largest economies.
“I hope from this post-quake reconstruction effort, Sino-Japanese relations can be further -improved,” Wen said.
Doing his part, the premier, who is called “Grandpa Wen” in China because of his man-of-the-people touch, chatted and laughed with tsunami survivors at an -evacuation center.
The relaxed, cordial exchanges contrasted with Kan’s first encounters with evacuees, who shouted at him in frustration at his handling of the disasters.