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2006 will be designated as Japan-China Tourism Exchange Year, Japanese government officials said Thursday.

Officials hope efforts to boost mutual visits will improve strained bilateral ties.

The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry plans to attract Chinese students on school excursions in the hope that they will visit Japan again in the future.

The ministry will also focus on promoting bilateral sister-city exchanges.

2004 saw 3.33 million Japanese visit China, while 616,000 Chinese visited Japan.

Japan has been trying to accept more foreign tourists under its Visit Japan campaign. It has agreed with South Korea to promote mutual exchanges in 2005 and with Australia for 2006.

Special years mooted

Japan and China have agreed to work on designating 2006 and 2007 as special years for bilateral friendship, and on setting a date for the next round of talks on China’s gas-exploration projects in the East China Sea, a Japanese official said.

Deputy Vice Foreign Minister Tsuneo Nishida and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei reached these agreements during Wednesday talks in Tokyo, the official said.

Proposing the idea of designating friendship years, Nishida told Wu that Japan and China should map out a long-term strategy to improve ties prior to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Bilateral ties have been strained recently, partly as a result of friction over historical matters.

Wu was quoted as saying China will “proactively” study Nishida’s proposal, but indirectly suggested that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should stop visiting the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, saying there is “an important problem” the two countries should overcome.

China has repeatedly asked Koizumi to stop visiting the Shinto shrine, which honors Japanese Class-A war criminals along with the country’s war dead.

Nishida and Wu also discussed a bilateral spat over gas exploration in disputed areas of the East China Sea.

Wu was quoted as stating that China is eager to continue talks with Japan on the issue and arrange the next round of bilateral talks.

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