JAKARTA — The leaders of Japan and China met Saturday in an effort to end a dispute over Japan’s wartime aggression that has badly damaged relations between the two Asian powers and alarmed their neighbors.

With Koizumi smiling and Hu assuming a solemn expression as they launched their talks at a Jakarta hotel, the two shook hands and exchanged words on the tsunami disaster suffered by people in Indonesia.

The meeting — the first top-level discussion since huge anti-Japan protests erupted earlier this month in major Chinese cities — lasted 55 minutes.

In a rare public statement to foreign media, Hu said he urged Japan to reflect on history, and that its apology needs to be backed up with action.

“At the moment Sino-Japanese relations face a difficult situation,” he said. “Such a difficult situation is not one we want to see.”

If the problem cannot be solved “it would be detrimental to China and Japan and would affect stability and development in Asia,” he said.

Hu also said he hopes bilateral problems can be solved via dialogue but Tokyo should not hurt the feelings of Chinese people.

The Chinese president said bilateral relations could improve if Tokyo refuses to support any moves toward independence by Taiwan. Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, and Beijing still claims the island as its territory.

“The question of Taiwan should be correctly handled,” Hu said. “It is hoped that the Japanese side will demonstrate through concrete action its adherence to the one-China policy and opposition to Taiwan independence.”

Koizumi, for his part, later told a news conference that he and Hu confirmed the importance of bilateral relations.

The two leaders did so without being unduly concerned by current discord, differences of opinion or anti-Japan demonstrations, he said.

Koizumi added that he also urged Hu to “deal appropriately” with the anti-Japan protests.

As for Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Class-A war criminals among the nation’s war dead, the prime minister quoted Hu as saying he did not intend to take up Yasukuni or other history issues in Saturday’s talks. Koizumi said he therefore did not discuss the matter, either.

Asked whether he would continue to visit the shrine, Koizumi reiterated that there was no change to his position of making “an appropriate decision” on the contentious issue.

It was the first top-level discussion since massive anti-Japan protests erupted earlier this month in major Chinese cities over Tokyo’s approval of a school history textbook that China claims plays down wartime atrocities.

It came a day after Koizumi offered the most public apology in a decade over Japan’s wartime aggression in Asia. Koizumi’s expression of “deep remorse” broke no new ground, but the rare appeal was a clear attempt to reverse the worst erosion of ties between Tokyo and Beijing since diplomatic relations were established in 1972.

Saturday’s meeting took place on the sidelines of a summit for Asian and African leaders in Jakarta.

Earlier, Koizumi told reporters during a brief visit to the tsunami-hit province of Aceh that he hoped to stress the importance of amiable Japan-China relations at his meeting with Hu.

“There is a saying ‘to turn misfortune into a blessing.’ All countries have confrontations, but in the long-term it is in both countries’ interests to overcome confrontation and to expand friendly ties,” he said.

“At the meeting, I would like us to share the recognition that friendly Japan-China relations are important.”

China, South Korea and other Asian nations have long accused Japan of not apologizing adequately for invading and occupying its neighbors, and Chinese animosities are aggravated by their rivalry with the Japanese to be the region’s dominant power.

The dispute has threatened Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. During a visit to India earlier this month, China’s premier told Japan to face up to its World War II aggression before aspiring to a bigger global role. It was the strongest hint yet that China might exercise its veto as one of the council’s five permanent members to block Japan.

At the start of the summit Friday, Koizumi expressed “deep remorse” for his country’s misdeeds. It marked the first statement of remorse from a Japanese leader since 1995.

“In the past, Japan through its colonial rule and aggression caused tremendous damage and suffering for the people of many countries, particularly those of Asian nations,” Koizumi said, conveying Tokyo’s “heartfelt apology” for its conquests.

“Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility,” he said.

Anti-China march

About 150 demonstrators, many of them Japanese nationalists, marched Saturday through Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, which has a large Chinese population, to protest anti-Japan violence in China.

Brandishing Japanese flags, the demonstrators chanted “Chinese government: Crack down on anti-Japan violent protests!” and “Chinese government: Formally apologize to Japan!”

The marchers said they were rallying against recent massive demonstrations in China. The protests turned violent when participants threw rocks and bottles at Japanese restaurants and diplomatic missions.

Organizer Shuhei Nishimura said about 300 people joined the procession, though police at the scene put the number at about 150.

“There are a lot of people around, so I think we’ve made our case,” Nishimura said as the demonstrators walked through Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most crowded shopping and entertainment districts.

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