By Chisa Fujioka
Tokyo (Reuters)- - Japan won pledges of help on Sunday from China and South Korea in its efforts to recover from a an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that rocked the nation in March, with Beijing promising to start easing curbs on Japanese food imports.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who hosted an annual summit of the three Asian economic powers 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.
Several countries, including China and South Korea, restricted Japanese agricultural imports after the March 11 disaster knocked out a nuclear plant on Japan's northeast coast, releasing radiation and raising fears of food contamination.
Tokyo's worry is that, even though food makes up just 1 percent of Japan's exports, radiation concerns could affect other goods just when the export-reliant economy plunged back into recession.
Japan has also feared that governments could go beyond what was necessary in their curbs in order to calm nervous publics, but its plea for more "reasonable" restrictions was initially rebuffed by Chinese and South Korean trade ministers last month.
There were signs of progress at the summit, with China's Premier Wen Jiabao saying Beijing was willing to import more food from Japan if safety standards were met and South Korea promising to base its safety steps on "scientific evidence."
According to Japanese foreign ministry officials in its first step Beijing would remove two Japanese prefectures in an area near the crippled nuclear plant from a list of 12 covered by an import ban due to radiation concerns.
The officials said China would also no longer require proof of radiation checks for food with the exception of milk products, vegetables and seafood.
In a symbolic gesture ahead of the summit, 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 at the center of the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
Wen and Lee, the first foreign leaders to visit Fukushima since the nuclear disaster, sampled locally-grown vegetables and fruit there and back in Tokyo were treated to a range of specialties from the disaster-struck area at an official dinner.
"The fact that they did this was the best way of showing the world that the food in Japan is safe. It was a big help," Kan told a post-summit news conference.
The show of goodwill contrasts with the initial stages of the crisis, when Seoul was frustrated by the handling of the nuclear disaster by Tokyo, which later acknowledged delays and inadequate communication in its early response to the crisis.
"Japan is committed to sharing with China, Republic of Korea and the international community at large, the lessons learned from the nuclear accident and the earthquake," the summit's statement said.
Last month, South Korea's prime minister accused Japan of "incompetence" and other officials complained it had informed Washington of a plan to release radioactive water from the Fukushima complex into the Pacific but did not tell Seoul.
Japan and its neighbors have a long history of feuds, suspicion and strained relations. Tensions over nuclear safety brought to light mistrust that was evident last September when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese patrol vessels near disputed islands close to potentially vast oil and gas reserves.
This weekend's meeting has been billed as a chance to improve their ties in the aftermath of the disaster, which wiped out whole coastal communities and left 25,000 dead or missing.
Commentators had been skeptical about whether the outpouring of sympathy could be sufficient to overcome centuries of troubled past.
The three leaders sought to prove them wrong by signing off on a list of areas where they pledged closer cooperation, from security on the Korean Peninsula, to disaster relief and prevention and pledges to consider launching talks on a free-trade pact, possibly as early as next year.
(Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Alex Richardson)