Japan yesterday pledged to maintain a strong autonomous relationship with the territory after next year's return to Chinese rule. Visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda also stressed it was of great importance to the world community that Hong Kong hold its position as an independent international financial centre. Speaking to the South China Morning Post after a one-hour meeting with acting Governor Anson Chan Fang On-sang, Mr Ikeda also revealed that Tokyo would look favourably on Special Administrative Region (SAR) passport holders. While stopping short of promising visa-free access for SAR passport holders after the handover, the minister confirmed that preferential treatment would be offered. He did not go into specifics and refused to say whether visas could be issued at entry points to Japan. But he said the visa system would give preference to SAR passport holders compared to mainland passport holders. Mr Ikeda entered the Central Government Offices through a back door to avoid running a gauntlet of protesters. Waiting in ambush for him at various locations were the Hong Kong Reparations Association; the Democratic Party; the Federation of Trade Unions; the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood; the China Youth Service and Recreation Centre; the Professional Teachers' Union; and the 123 Democratic Alliance. Some were seeking billions of dollars in compensation for war victims, others were appealing for support for their democratic aspirations or calling on Tokyo to give up sovereignty to the disputed Diaoyu Islands. Urging the need for Hong Kong to maintain a high level of autonomy, Mr Ikeda told Mrs Chan that its key characteristic - Hong Kong's free, deregulated society - was important to maintain after 1997. He said the judges of the economy were not foreign governments but foreign businesses, and therefore it was important that businessmen maintained confidence in Hong Kong. The level of Japanese investment in Hong Kong is second only to China, and in the industrial and manufacturing industries it is the leading spender. About 1.7 million Japanese visited Hong Kong last year. Mr Ikeda also denied that Japan held concerns of a military buildup by China and said he accepted the mainland military apparatus was undergoing a modernisation process. 'We in no way consider China a threat,' he said. Mr Ikeda said Japan's defence plan adopted last November and April's renewal of Japan's security pact with the US were not signs that a threat from China was perceived. The mainland has accused Japan of being overly militarist in its defence policy. 'There will certainly be instances where the interests of our two countries do not exactly coincide with each other. There may be behaviour by either that causes concern for the other. However, we are making efforts to promote dialogue and confidence building.' He said the two countries would make sure such instances would not adversely affect the overall Japan-China relationship. Mr Ikeda ruled out giving up the Diaoyu Islands and said there was nothing to discuss as far as his government was concerned because the islands were an inseparable part of Japanese territory. He said the issues of the provisional legislature, the selection of a post-1997 chief executive and the Selection Committee were discussed. Mr Ikeda said he hoped the issues could be addressed in a way which satisfied all parties involved.