By Kim Kyung Hoon and Sui-Lee Wee
NATORI, Japan (Reuters)- - Chinese and South Korean leaders chatted with evacuees and tasted local produce in Japan's battered northeast on Saturday, in a show of support for a nation struggling with a humanitarian and nuclear crisis set off by a deadly earthquake and tsunami in March.
Premier Wen Jiabao signaled Beijing's willingness to ease restrictions on Japanese food imports imposed by China and other nations, including South Korea, after the disaster crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant and fanned contamination fears.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who hosts an annual summit of the region's three leading economies this weekend, has counted on the event to help ease concerns at home and abroad about the safety of Japan's nuclear facilities and farm exports.
In a symbolic gesture, Wen and South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak met Kan in Fukushima city, about 60 km (37 miles) northwest of the stricken power plant that triggered the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
Outside a sports complex that was turned into an evacuation center after the quake, the three leaders ate local cucumbers, tomatoes and other produce to demonstrate the food was safe.
Wen and Lee were the first foreign leaders to visit Fukushima since the nuclear disaster.
"China is willing to continue relaxation toward importing Japanese agricultural and other goods, with the condition that safety is assured," Wen, dressed in trainers, blue shirt and a dark jacket, told reporters in Natori, a northeastern town heavily wrecked by the tsunami, he also visited.
Later, Japanese Trade Minister Banri Kaieda told reporters his Chinese counterpart has also assured him that Beijing would be more open to food imports.
"Of course, we will have inspections based on scientific evidence but we want to increase food imports from Japan," he quoted Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming as saying in talks in Tokyo. The remarks suggest a softening of China's stance after Beijing's and South Korea's trade ministers last month rebuffed Japan's call for more "reasonable" and limited restrictions.
Even though food makes up just 1 percent of Japan's exports, Tokyo is keen to ease the restrictions fearing that radiation concerns could affect other goods just when the export-reliant economy plunged back into recession.
The meeting of three neighbors with a history of long-running feuds has been billed as an opportunity to improve their ties in the aftermath of the disaster, which wiped out whole coastal communities and left 25,000 dead or missing.
However, commentators have been skeptical whether the outpouring of sympathy could be sufficient to overcome centuries of mistrust and suspicion rooted in bitter memories of Japan's past military aggression.
Relations between Japan and China chilled again last September after a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese patrol vessels near disputed islands close to potentially vast oil and gas reserves.
In a sign of simmering tensions, about 300 protesters gathered outside a Tokyo hotel where the Chinese delegation was staying waving Japanese and Tibetan flags and holding placards about Japanese rights to the disputed territories.
Wen, called "Grandpa Wen" at home because of his man-of-the-people touch, was doing his part, handing out stuffed pandas to tsunami survivors at an evacuation center. His cordial exchanges contrasted with Kan's first encounters with evacuees, who shouted at him in frustration at his handling of the disasters.
Later, after his arrival in Tokyo, Wen set aside time to meet -- and invite for concerts in China -- Japanese pop group SMAP, which canceled an appearance at the Shanghai Expo last year after the trawler incident.
(Writing by Chisa Fujioka; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Alex Richardson)