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Invitee Masuzoe in Beijing amid chill

Kyodo

Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe arrived in Beijing on Thursday in hopes of cooling tensions rising between China and Japan over territorial and historical issues.

In the first visit by a Tokyo mayor since 2008, Masuzoe’s three-day trip comes at a time when almost no high-level political contacts have been made for several years between Asia’s two biggest economies because of the row over the Senkaku Islands reignited by Masuzoe’s predecessor, nationalist former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

“I think it would be good if our city-to-city diplomacy could lead to an improvement in relations between Japan and China,” Masuzoe, the first Tokyo mayor to be invited by Beijing’s municipal government in 18 years, told reporters before departing from Tokyo.

“This time I was invited. So I am hoping to pave the way for a visit to Tokyo by Beijing’s mayor next time,” said the former health minister said. Masuzoe became governor in February.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supports the governor’s visit, but has not himself managed to hold official talks with Chinese leaders since taking office more than a year ago, when bilateral relations were already falling apart over the isle row as well as different interpretations of wartime history.

During talks with Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun, Masuzoe will discuss measures to curb the serious air pollution in China and learn from the capital’s experience hosting the 2008 Olympics, which Tokyo will host in 2020.

Masuzoe is also scheduled to visit Olympic-related facilities in Beijing and give a speech at Capital Normal University.

The last Tokyo governor to visit Beijing was Ishihara, who attended the opening ceremony for the Olympics in August 2008. The novelist-turned-politician, known for his nationalistic views, is now a Diet member. In April 2012, he announced that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had a plan to buy three of the Senkaku Islands from their private Japanese owner.

The central government, which feared Sino-Japanese relations would be seriously damaged if Ishihara went ahead with the plan, decided to outbid him and buy the islets in the East China Sea five months later.

The uninhabited islets, administrated by Japan for decades even before the purchase effectively nationalized them, are claimed by China.

The transfer of ownership to the central government infuriated China, causing diplomatic ties between the countries to sink to the worst level since ties were normalized in 1972, with no sign of them being repaired in the immediate future.

China was further enraged by Abe’s visit in December to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals as well as millions of war dead.