The premier's recent trip to Japan focused on the softer side of ties but he may have paved the way for key talks on the serious issues Language is one area in which China and Japan have a lot in common. In both languages, the word 'sharp' - or 'salient point' - is expressed by the iconic character '', which is composed of the character for 'small' coming before the character for 'big', which sits below. This composition also is perhaps a fitting description of China's philosophy today in dealing with Japan, and is best demonstrated by Premier Wen Jiabao's visit there last week. By focusing on smaller issues before taking on bigger ones, he breathed new life into the troubled Sino-Japanese relationship. Mr Wen's visit came after years of strained ties between Asia's two major powers, brought on by bickering over issues ranging from wartime history to natural resources. That Mr Wen is the first top Chinese leader to visit Japan in almost seven years speaks volumes about how frosty relations have become. So it was natural that Mr Wen's visit prompted expectations. The premier himself had promised it would be an 'ice-melting' visit. Yet despite the largely positive reaction he received in Tokyo - where Mr Wen became the first Chinese leader to address Japan's parliament in 22 years - there is a feeling in both countries that the trip failed to live up to its billing. To many critics the visit was more symbolic than problem-solving. A fair amount of Mr Wen's time was spent on publicity stunts, such as jogging in a park, playing baseball with students and planting tomatoes with farmers. He did touch on sensitive topics like Japan's wartime aggression and disputes over gas fields in the East China Sea during meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but many felt he did not push hard enough on these fronts. Japan's Asahi newspaper reported that Mr Wen had been attacked by hardliners in Beijing for being too soft. Even some Japanese shared that feeling. Hiroko Tsubokawa, a Japanese activist helping 'comfort women' in Asia and co-author of a history textbook written by scholars from Japan, China and South Korea, said: 'I'm a bit disappointed that he did not press hard enough on the history front - such as the comfort women issue.' Some were let down by Mr Wen's evasive responses to cries for help in saving Japanese abducted decades ago by North Korea - an issue that has become extremely sensitive and the No1 diplomatic mission for Mr Abe's government. 'It's a pity that Wen did not give us any concrete promise. China can exert huge influence over North Korea, and in doing so it could greatly improve our relations,' said Takashi Tanuma, a politician in the city of Chiba. Instead, the two leaders focused mainly on issues which some believed were either too trivial - such as cultural exchanges - or unsurprising - such as economic co-operation. Trade, after all, is one rare area in the strained relationship that would not require any government prompting to expand. Even during the bleakest days in relations two years ago, trade between China and Japan was growing at a record rate. Japanese businessman Taro Nakagawa said: 'My impression is that he is mainly here to make a show. No serious issues have been addressed. It's more for him to win points in China's domestic power struggle [than improve] bilateral ties.' So was Mr Wen's trip a success? Most foreign relations experts in both countries think it was. By avoiding disputes and focusing on shared interests, Mr Wen has managed to ease the tension and set a positive tone for future developments. An editorial writer of a major Japanese publication said: 'His approach is a typical eastern philosophy - stressing the common ground and avoiding difficult issues in order to create room for the next move. If he had insisted on solving principal issues first, bilateral relations would be stuck in a stalemate.' Makoto Sakai, Japanese director of the China, South Korea and Japan Cultural Exchange Forum, agreed. 'His speech and his public image were both very well-received. Wen has successfully demonstrated a different kind of Chinese leadership to the Japanese public. The public perception [of China] is different,' Mr Sakai said. 'Of course there are still radical voices in both countries, but the visit has successfully marginalised these voices. It creates a healthy environment so we can move on and prepare for more difficult issues.' Richard Hu, director of the international relations programme at the University of Hong Kong, said Mr Wen had learned the value of a softer initial approach from one of his predecessors, Zhou Enlai , who laid the foundation for the normalisation of Sino-Japanese ties after the second world war. 'Zhou's approach at the time was quite similar. He focused on building a good image for China and promoting cultural and social exchanges. Gradually the movement started to gain momentum and drove the two governments towards conciliation,' he said. Professor Hu said public opinion in China was largely supportive of Mr Wen's conciliatory approach. It would probably be easier for Mr Wen to take a stronger stance than adopt a softer tone. But doing so would strengthen, not marginalise, the hawks in the Japanese government. Instead, his forward-looking and conciliatory tone reduced the chances for Japanese leaders to slide back to the hardline position. It is now up to Mr Abe to return the friendliness. 'The Chinese have a saying that the best way to get what you want from others is by offering something to them first. This is certainly what Wen has been doing,' said the editorial writer. 'Improving Sino-Japanese relations has now become the biggest political achievement for the Abe government. It would be very hard now for Abe to do something to damage those ties. It could well be his political legacy.' Despite recent developments, the relationship is still on a shaky footing. Although China and Japan are more economically interdependent on each other than at any time in their history, the two peoples know surprisingly little about each other. Public perceptions of one another in both countries are shallow and biased. Media reports are often stereotyped and superficial, observed Ke Yue, president of JC-Pictures, a subsidiary under the People's Daily that promotes cultural exchanges between Japan and China. Ms Ke said South Korean movies and TV series have stormed Asia in recent years and the fad for anything Korean had greatly contributed to the warmer reception South Koreans now enjoyed in Japan. In contrast, Japanese students showed little interest in China and large-scale anti-Japanese protests two years ago still left many fearful. 'I have no interest in China, apart from the food,' admitted Shinichi Tanaka, a 19-year old undergraduate at Waseda University in Tokyo. He said most of his classmates were the same. 'My impressions of Chinese are mainly gained from TV news, such as the anti-Japanese protests. They are also frequently associated with all sorts of crimes in Japan. I don't dislike them, I just don't feel attracted to them.' Mr Wen and his government surely understand this. That explains why, apart from economic co-operation, he spent most of his time talking about cultural and personal exchanges. In the game of Go - another cultural heritage shared by the two peoples - the key to victory is not to capture others' pieces but to create as much room as possible for yourself. It seems that by initially focusing on smaller topics, the Chinese premier has begun creating space for future manoeuvres.