TOKYO – The leaders of Japan, China and South Korea gathered Saturday to demonstrate their shared desire for Japan's earthquake and tsunami recovery and to smooth out differences over Japan's handling of its nuclear crisis.
Ahead of a trilateral summit, the leaders met in the city of Fukushima, just 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which suffered severe damage from the March 11 disaster.
The earthquake and tsunami left more than 24,000 people dead or missing and sparked an ongoing crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi. China and South Korea have been critical of Japan's response to the nuclear crisis, particularly about the release of radiation into the ocean and the monitoring of food exports for contamination.
Japan hopes the visit by the two leaders will help ease concerns and import restrictions on Japanese produce. The summit was expected to focus on the nuclear crisis and ways for each country to help Japan's recovery.
In a nod to local farmers, the three leaders sampled cherries, tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers grown in Fukushima.
"It was my decision to come to Fukushima," China's Premier Wen Jiabao said. "I come here on behalf of all the Chinese people."
He suggested that import restrictions may be loosened if safety is ensured, Japanese media reported.
Tokyo had reportedly wanted to formally open the summit in Fukushima, but that plan had to be scrapped because of logistical issues. Instead, the leaders visited an evacuation center in Fukushima and then headed to Tokyo for a welcoming banquet.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak arrived in Sendai city late Saturday morning and immediately headed to devastated nearby areas, offering a wreath of flowers and a silent prayer.
Wen arrived later and followed a similar schedule. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan joined them in Fukushima City Saturday afternoon.
The summit talks, along with bilateral meetings, were to be held in Tokyo on Sunday.
After placing the flowers in a rubble-covered neighborhood near Sendai, Lee said South Korea would do all it could to help Japan.
"The world is impressed as it watches the attitude and courage that the Japanese people have shown in their effort to recover from the disaster," he said. "I believe and hope that Japan will rebuild soon."
Wen spent about a half hour at the Tatekoshi Elementary School in Natori. The school gym is serving as a shelter for 123 people.
He sat down with four families and spoke through an interpreter. He gave out gifts, including stuffed pandas, wind-up flashlights and radios.
Hiroyasu Kudo, 45, said Wen asked him what the earthquake felt like.
"I told him I'm thinking about what I can do, especially for those that died," said Kudo, who is at the shelter with his family. "He said the best thing I could do is to make a strong family."
AP writer Jay Alabaster in Natori contributed to this report.