Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke highly of a recent visit to China by a Komeito leader to mend ties strained by Diaoyu Island dispute but vowed not to shelve the issue, offering no diplomatic room for reconciliation.
In response to the call of China's top political leader Xi Jinping to improve ties, the Japanese prime minister said the door to dialogue is still open.
Observers said the two sides have demonstrated restraint and suggest dialogue be enhanced to mend ties damaged by the island disputes.
Japanese media reported that Abe was encouraged by Natsuo Yamaguchi's four-day visit to China. Yamaguchi, party leader of Japan's pacifist New Komeito, went to Beijing on Tuesday and handed Xi a letter from Abe.
According to Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, Abe said Yamaguchi's visit was "very good", and "it was encouraging that a consensus was reached on the need to promote a mutually beneficial relationship while considering the bigger picture".
Abe said he is prepared to keep the door open for dialogue, Yamaguchi said.
Abe told Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun on Sunday that exploring ways to have a leaders' meeting is "on his mind". The comments were in response to Xi's emphasis on high-level dialogue. He said maintaining the status of dialogue "serves the national interests of both countries".
During Yamaguchi's meeting with Xi on Friday, Xi said Beijing's emphasis on developing China-Japan ties "has not changed".
Before his trip, there was widespread speculation on whether Yamaguchi would meet with Xi, and the fact the meeting did occur demonstrates the importance Beijing attached to Yamaguchi's visit and willingness to improve ties, said Zhang Tuosheng, a researcher at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies.
During the meeting, Xi called on both sides to show "national responsibility, political wisdom and historical duty", similar to what the former leaders of the two countries had done.
The three key phrases of Xi's advice can be seen as the key to decode the current diplomatic dilemma, said Feng Wei, an expert on Japanese studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
"A lack of historical duty is behind the rampant nationalism within Japan, and dispelling the nationalistic sentiment is a key to solving the islands tension and improving bilateral ties," Feng said.
Abe's handwritten letter is indicative of his wish for improving ties.
"The key to thaw ties depends on what Tokyo will do next," Zhang Tuosheng added.
Zhang said other steps that will help mend ties include Tokyo having the courage to recognize the existence of the Diaoyu Islands dispute, and Tokyo's departure from more measures that may further strain bilateral ties, he said.
Since Abe was elected in a landslide victory in December, he has demonstrated a tough stance toward China, and launched so-called value-oriented diplomacy by visiting Southeast Asian countries and sending other diplomats on shuttle diplomacy trips, widely interpreted as aimed at containing China.
Despite this, Beijing has confirmed that diplomatic efforts and communication remains between China and Japan.
Before Yamaguchi, Yukio Hatoyama, Japan's former prime minister, visited China in mid-January. Apart from meeting with Chinese officials and scholars, he also visited the memorial site to victims of the Nanjing Massacre in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. Another Japanese friendship group, led by former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, is scheduled to visit China this week.
Ezra Feivel Vogel, a famous United States scholar on Chinese and Japanese studies, told Chinese media recently the top leaders from both sides should try not to embarrass each other and should resume conversation.
Experts said they hope Abe can treat China in a rational manner, as he has underlined the importance of Sino-Japanese relationship several times but still refuses to take a step back on the islands issue.
During the interview with Mainichi, Abe insisted that "there has been no such shelving the issue", and "there is still no change" in Tokyo's position over Diaoyu islands, which offers no diplomatic room for reconciliation regarding the islands issue.
Former Japanese PM Murayama to visit Beijing today
Former Japanese PM Tomiichi Murayama will arrive in Beijing Monday for a four-day visit, becoming the third senior Japanese politician to come to Beijing in half a month.
Before Murayama, Yukio Hatoyama, another Japan's former prime minister, visited China in mid-January. After meeting with Chinese officials and scholars, he urged Tokyo to acknowledge the dispute over Diaoyu Islands.
Last week, New Komeito party chief Natsuo Yamaguchi came to Beijing and delivered a handwritten letter from PM Shinzo Abe to CPC general secretary Xi Jinping.
Murayama, 89, served as the 81st Prime Minister of Japan from 30 June 1994 to 11 January 1996. He is also an honorary adviser of the Japan-China Friendship Association.
Murayama was the head of the Social Democratic Party of Japan (until 1996, the Japan Socialist Party) and the first Socialist prime minister in nearly fifty years.
He is most remembered today for his speech "On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war's end," in which he publicly apologized for Japanese atrocities during World War II.
The former Japanese PM is expected to hold talks with senior Chinese officials.