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Japan PM to ask China for disaster zone pandas
by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) Dec 22, 2011

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Thursday he would ask China to send pandas to a disaster-hit Japanese city to help boost morale among those still suffering from the earthquake and tsunami.

"When I visit China at the weekend, I will try to make final arrangements," Noda said. "I will do my best to make the dream come true."

The premier is scheduled to be in Beijing on Sunday and Monday for talks with Chinese leaders at a time the region is on tenterhooks following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

The visit also comes as Japan holds two Chinese fishermen, arrested for straying into Tokyo's waters.

Noda hopes to highlight the panda lease as a "symbol of Japan-China friendship" when the two countries mark the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of their diplomatic ties next year, local media said.

Noda was speaking to officials from Sendai, one of the cities hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which killed nearly 20,000 people in Japan's northeast and sparked a crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Sendai's local administration has already asked the Chinese embassy in Tokyo for the lease of giant pandas to lift the spirits of local children.

"We hope our children can heal their wounded hearts by looking at the adorable pandas," Sendai deputy mayor Yukimoto Ito told reporters after meeting the premier.

The meeting was also attended by Japanese pop star Masahiko Kondo, 47, who has been supporting reconstruction in the disaster zones and pledged to chip in for Sendai's panda project.

Panda diplomacy has been a key plank of China's engagement with the outside world for many decades.

A panda craze gripped Japan for the first time in 1972 when China gave Japan a pair to mark the normalisation of ties.

China also leased two pandas to Kobe in 2000 to cheer up children traumatised by the 1995 earthquake that devastated the port city.

There are 11 giant pandas in Japan at present, including two that arrived at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo in February under a contract that will cost the metropolitan government $950,000 a year for the next decade.

The money will be spent on wildlife protection in China.

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