Japan has kicked off a summit with Southeast Asian leaders by seeking closer trade relations with the region.
Tokyo is playing host to officials from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The summit is being seen as an attempt by Japan to match China's growing influence in the area.
Before the main session began today (Thursday), Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi held one-on-one meetings with several of the ASEAN leaders. Later, the government announced it had initiated free trade talks with Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.
So far, Japan has just one free trade partner--Singapore. Earlier in the year, it persuaded South Korea to begin talks on a free trade agreement.
Japan is Southeast Asia's second-largest trading partner and investor, after the United States. Last year, its trade with the region was worth an estimated 123-billion dollars.
This is the first time ASEAN leaders as a group have held a summit outside their region. Mr. Koizumi suggested the regional summit last year while he was on a Southeast Asian tour.
Protesters demanding the release in Burma of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi gathered near the state guest house where the ASEAN summit is being held in Tokyo.
Their protest was small but noisy. Tokyo police kept a close watch as the protesters carried signs with pictures of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. The demonstrators accused Burmese leaders of lying to the international community about wanting to improve human rights in their country.
Information for this report is provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.