By Joseph Campbell
BEIJING (Reuters) - The governor of the Japanese capital Tokyo said on Thursday there was "great significance" in his visit to the Chinese capital and the trip could be a step toward repairing strained bilateral ties.
Hopes have run high for the visit at a time when relations between China and Japan, Asia's two largest economies, have been particularly strained.
"Country-to-country relations between Japan and China are tense, and there's great significance in the people of Beijing asking me to come here," Governor Yoichi Masuzoe told reporters after arriving in Beijing for a three-day visit.
He said improving ties would be a step-by-step process.
"You can't do everything immediately, but there are a number of things we can do, for instance, meet about environmental problems ... coordinate exchanges between students studying abroad," he said.
"By adding these things together, we can improve relations between both countries."
Analysts said last week that the visit had the potential to open an alternate channel of dialogue between the countries.
Ties have been weighed down by a territorial dispute over a string of tiny islets in the East China Sea, known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese.
Relations have long been soured by Chinese resentment of Japan's wartime occupation of large parts of China and the belief that Japan has never properly atoned for its actions.
In particular, China objects to visits by Japanese officials to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead including 14 war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal.
Compounding China's suspicion of Japan is the belief that hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is intent on revising the pacifist constitution that Japan adopted after its World War Two defeat. Masuzoe was elected to his post with the backing of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.
Masuzoe's trip comes as U.S. President Barack Obama visits Tokyo, where he has ruffled China's feathers by assuring Japan that the United States is committed to defending the disputed islands because of a defense treaty with Japan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Masuzoe's visit was at the invitation of the Beijing city government.
"We have all along had a supportive and proactive attitude towards friendly civil and local exchanges between China and Japan," Qin told a daily briefing. "We hope that all levels in Japan of people with insight can work hard with us to improve and develop Sino-Japan relations."
Masuzoe will meet Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun on Friday, Japanese officials said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Writing by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Robert Birsel)