TOKYO - Japan weighed in Friday on the stand-off between government and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, calling for the city's "free and open" system not to be undermined, in an intervention likely to anger Beijing.
"Japan strongly hopes that Hong Kong's free and open system will be kept under the principle of 'one nation, two systems' so that the close relationship between Japan and Hong Kong will be maintained," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.
"Japan has very close economic ties with Hong Kong, and its future is of great interest to Japan," the top government spokesman told a morning press conference.
"Hong Kong's prosperity plays an important role in the prosperity and stability of not only China but the whole Asia-Pacific region, including Japan," Suga said.
The comments came as students, whose pro-democracy protests have gripped the southern Chinese city, on Friday agreed to hold talks with the government while vowing to continue their occupation.
When asked again about the situation later Friday, Suga said Tokyo was "watching how the situation develops".
"It is best that Hong Kong resolve Hong Kong's problem democratically," he said, without elaborating.
More than 1,200 Japanese companies have outposts in Hong Kong, according to Japan's foreign ministry.
Japan is Hong Kong's third-largest trading partner following mainland China and the United States, while the former British colony is the largest export destination for Japanese agricultural produce.
There is also a thriving two-way tourism relationship.
China has been sensitive about what it describes as countries meddling in its internal affairs and has warned foreign governments not to intervene in the stand-off.
Comments from Japan could particularly inflame Beijing.
The two countries have been at loggerheads in recent years, putatively over disputed Tokyo-controlled islands but with the spectre of their bloody shared history always present.
The world has watched as tens of thousands of people have occupied streets in Hong Kong, bringing parts of the thriving commerce centre to a halt.
They are angry at the way Beijing wants to handle elections for the city's next leader in 2017.
The Communist Party has offered one-person, one-vote, but only for a limited panel of pre-approved candidates -- something dismissed by demonstrators as "fake democracy".