A senior Chinese diplomat made a secret visit to Tokyo this week to hold talks aimed at defusing tensions between Japan and China over a group of disputed islands, Japan's top government spokesman said Friday.
The spokesman, Osamu Fujimura, said Luo Zhaohui, who leads the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Asian Affairs Department, met Thursday with Shinsuke Sugiyama, the director general of the Asian and Oceanic Affairs Bureau at Japan's Foreign Ministry. Mr. Fujimura was confirming a statement issued Thursday night by the Japanese ministry that revealed the meeting.
The talks appeared to signal a willingness by the nations to at least begin discussing their often highly emotional disagreement over control of the island group, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. According to the ministry's statement, the diplomats "exchanged opinions" on the dispute and held preparatory talks for a higher-level meeting between the two nations to take place at an unspecified date.
While neither the Japanese nor the Chinese offered much additional detail, the meeting offered the first glimpse of behind-the-scenes diplomacy aimed at cooling a heated territorial dispute that has set the two Asian powers increasingly at odds and has begun to damage their extensive economic ties. The fact that the meeting took place at all seemed to signal that the two nations wanted to pull back from a confrontation that has led to violent street protests in China and cat-and-mouse games between their patrol ships on the high seas.
Mr. Fujimura expressed hope that a higher-level meeting, which is expected to involve vice ministers, who are usually the nations' top-ranking career diplomats, would be a first step toward lowering tensions.
"It is important for both Japan and China to work toward an environment of improved relations by starting with various efforts at communication," Mr. Fujimura said. "We expect there to be a frank exchange of opinions."
On Friday, the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo confirmed the Thursday meeting and said that its diplomat, Mr. Luo, had left Japan.
Reports in Japanese newspapers said the two diplomats had spoken by phone to arrange the meeting after talks last month in Beijing ended inconclusively. This suggested that the diplomats might be using personal rapport to try to bridge the differences between their two nations.
The islands at the center of the dispute are uninhabited, rocky outcroppings, surrounded by the shark-infested waters of the East China Sea. But they hold a highly symbolic value for many Chinese, who say that Japan's annexation of them in 1895 was a first step in empire-building that culminated in its invasion of China in the 1930s.
Japan says that China only started making a claim to the islands in the early 1970s, after evidence emerged that the seabeds around the islands might hold rich oil and natural gas deposits.
The long-running dispute flared anew this year, when the nationalist governor of Tokyo suddenly proclaimed that he wanted to buy some of the islands from their owner, a Japanese citizen. This prompted activists from both nations to stage landings on one of the islands, which are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Tensions spiraled last month after Japan's prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, announced that the Japanese government would buy the islands instead. While Mr. Noda apparently hoped to defuse the standoff by keeping the islands out of the Tokyo governor's hands, the move drew outrage in China, where attacks on Japanese businesses and boycotts of Japanese goods hurt economic relations. Trade between the two totaled $345 billion last year, economists say.
Spurred by nationalist fervor at home, the Chinese government had kept up the pressure on Japan, sending small flotillas of unarmed patrol ships into waters near the islands. These were shadowed by Japanese coast guard vessels, resulting at times in verbal clashes in which each side used bullhorns and radios to accuse the other of trespassing.
The growing tensions have even held the tiny but still worrisome prospect of dragging the United States into a military confrontation with China: Washington is obligated by treaty to defend Japan if it is attacked, and American officials have said in the past that the islands fall within the scope of that security treaty. So far, American officials have avoided supporting the claims of either side, while calling on both nations to ease the dispute.
Hisako Ueno and Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.