BEIJING (Reuters) - First it was ping pong, then it was pandas. Now Tokyo and Beijing are turning to pop group diplomacy in an effort to soothe often tense ties.
Despite the plethora of political problems between the two countries, China has warmly welcomed Japanese pop group SMAP ahead of a concert in Beijing on Friday, whose theme is "Do Your Best Japan, Thank You China, Asia is One" in gratitude for Chinese help after Japan's March tsunami disaster.
"We would be happy if the concert could be an advanced celebration of the 40th anniversary of Japan-China friendship," group member Takuya Kimura told reporters in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, according to state media. China and Japan mark four decades of diplomatic ties next year.
Former Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan gave the group greetings from Premier Wen Jiabao, who met them during his visit to Tokyo earlier in the year.
Wen invited SMAP -- formed as a boy band two decades ago whose members are ubiquitous in movies, TV shows and commercials -- to China in May.
Scheduled concerts in Shanghai last year were canceled after tensions flared following Japan's detention of a Chinese trawler and its crew in disputed waters northeast of Taiwan.
"(We) hold a supportive and positive attitude toward these kind of communications and exchanges," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswomen Jiang Yu said of the concert. "We hope this will help improve national sentiment between China and Japan."
SMAP will perform three songs in Chinese, along with their other hits, in front of 40,000 fans at the Workers' Stadium, close to Beijing's fashionable Sanlitun bar and shopping district.
While Japanese pop stars are not nearly as popular in China as they are in Hong Kong and Taiwan, some of the most famous singers in the Chinese-speaking world have had big hits with Mandarin covers of Japanese songs.
SMAP's Beijing appearance has been keenly anticipated on China's Twitter-style microblogging sites.
"I hope that in future we can welcome even more Japanese artists to China," wrote Japan Little Smart on Sina Weibo.
Reporting by Sabrina Mao and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Daniel Magnowski