China's Wen pitches friendship as Japan ties thaw

KYOTO, Japan Fri Apr 13, 2007 8:12am EDT

1 of 8. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, wearing baseball uniform, catches a ball during an exchange event with Ritsumeikan University's baseball team at Nishikyogoku stadium in Kyoto, Japan April 13, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

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KYOTO, Japan (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made a pitch -- literally -- for friendship with Japan on a visit to Kyoto on Friday, winding up a landmark trip aimed at building on an emerging detente between the two rivals.

Wen's three-day trip to Japan has combined high-level talks with a common touch -- jogging, chatting with a farmer and pitching to a university baseball team -- in a performance intended to appeal to the public and promote a thaw begun with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's October trip to Beijing.

The first Chinese leader to visit Japan since 2000, Wen on Thursday gave a milestone speech to Japan's parliament on Thursday, talking of friendship but also warning not to forget the wartime history that has long plagued relations.

The Chinese premier's effort to reach out has been widely welcomed in Japan, although wariness persists as to whether the Asian rivals, at odds over energy, territory and regional influence, can become real friends.

Early in the day, Wen admitted that solving all bilateral problems would take time. But after playing a bit of baseball with university students, he called the trip a success.

Then, speaking to business leaders and politicians in Osaka before heading home, Wen recited a poem he had written to sum up his visit and concluded his remarks to applause, saying:

"Spring has come. The sun shines brightly. The cherry trees blossom proudly and the snow and ice have melted."

Just hours before, Wen -- wearing a university uniform with his name and the number 35 for the years since Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties were established -- had pitched and batted to college students as VIPs cheered and clapped from the sidelines.

That was after the 64-year-old leader startled his host, team manager Kenji Matsuoka, by taking an impromptu sprint around the field.

"I haven't touched a baseball for nearly 50 years, but when I was young, I liked baseball and I am very happy to have played with university students," Wen said. "I didn't play well, but it felt good."

TEA AND TOMATO PLANTS

Japanese media generally welcomed Wen's trip, which has been marked more by symbolism than concrete breakthroughs.

China's official media were also cautiously optimistic.

"Although it takes more than one day to melt the thick ice, the trend of improving bilateral ties is irreversible," said a commentary in the overseas edition of the People's Daily.

Wen began his hectic schedule in Kyoto with a Japanese tea ceremony at a guest house on the grounds of the palace where the emperor resided when Kyoto was the capital.

The carefully choreographed ritual took place in a room adorned with a calligraphy scroll in the characters shared by both countries and meaning "mutual respect."

"Understanding comes through getting to know each other," Wen told grand tea master Soshitsu Sen, who prepared the bitter green brew.

In a sign tensions remain, however, members of Japanese right-wing groups cruised the streets in trucks with loudspeakers blaring anti-China slogans, and security was tight.

Wen later laid flowers at a memorial to former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who studied in Tokyo and Kyoto from 1917 to 1919.

He then exchanged his suit and tie for a windbreaker and running shoes to visit a Japanese farm, where he planted two tomato plants before drinking tea and eating a rice-and-red-bean sweet while chatting with the farmer's family.

Wen has sought to use his human touch as a diplomatic tool, but some Japanese people watching from afar were skeptical.

"I saw him on TV and he seems to be nice," said housewife Yasuyo Komori, 66, as she took her daily walk inside the palace grounds. "But I don't have a good image of China," she said.

Between his smiles and handshakes, Wen has issued pointed reminders that China remains wary of Japan's handling of the legacies from its military aggression in Asia up to 1945.

Still, his speech, the first by a Chinese leader to Japan's parliament in 22 years, was a landmark in the thaw between the two Asian giants, whose economies are deeply linked.

Tokyo and Beijing fell out during the five-year term of Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who paid his respects each year at Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine, seen across much of the region as a symbol of past militarism.

Wen did not explicitly mention the shrine in his speech, but in an interview before his visit he pressed Abe not to go.

Abe has paid his respects before at Yasukuni, but has declined to say if he will do so as prime minister.

(Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno, Elaine Lies and Linda Sieg in Tokyo, Chris Buckley in Kyoto and Chisa Fujioka in Osaka.

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