BEIJING — Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met Tuesday with a Japanese delegation led by ex-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, amid halting efforts to reduce lingering tensions between the countries before this year's 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.
Li told Kono that the last two years have been difficult, but "both sides have the wish to improve things." That was a reference to a festering island territorial dispute and what Beijing sees as moves by some in Japan to shirk their country's responsibility for the war.
A brief meeting in November between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping helped break the ice, but a full range of exchanges has yet to be restored.
Kono said that meeting was made possible by the "enormous efforts and wisdom of diplomats from both countries" and that members of his delegation from the Association for the Promotion of International Trade wished to "push forward the bilateral ties with the spirit of respecting history and facing the future."
Kono is considered a strongly pro-China member of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and has counseled against any backtracking on his country's acceptance of responsibility for the war that began with Japan's 1937 invasion of China and included atrocities such as the Nanking Massacre.
The war remains an extremely sensitive issue among Chinese and any weakening of Japan's past expressions of guilt by hawkish Prime Minister Abe is likely to deal a further setback to relations.
In 1993, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono released a now-famous statement conceding that the Japanese Imperial Army forced foreign women to work in military-run brothels during the war.
Before then, the government had denied the women were coerced and the statement has remained controversial in Japan.