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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left Tuesday for a six-nation European tour, hoping to make progress on trade and security talks at a time when powerful neighbour China is flexing its muscles.
The premier's nine-day visit, which will take him to Germany, Britain, Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium, comes less than a week after Japan hosted US President Barack Obama on a state visit.
Despite high hopes, Tokyo and Washington failed to find common ground on a Pacific-wide free trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
A year ago, the European Union and Japan launched their own trade talks aimed at boosting business between the continent and the world's number three economy, a tie-up that would account for about 40 percent of global trade.
Officials on both sides say negotiations are moving forward and a deal could be struck before the TPP, with Abe's visit seen as an important diplomatic boost to securing an agreement.
The recent loosening of Tokyo's self-imposed ban on arms exports could open up commercial opportunities with Europe.
Abe's itinerary includes a Japan-EU summit and meetings with NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Angel Gurria, head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"Europe is influential on forming opinions in the world," Abe told reporters at Haneda airport before his departure, according to Jiji Press.
"I would like to strengthen our ties with Europe," he added.
Earlier this month, Japan lifted its ban on weapons exports, introducing new rules covering the arms trade in a move supporters say will boost Tokyo's global role.
Japan is locked in a bitter territorial dispute with an increasingly assertive China, while regional tensions are high over a possible North Korean nuclear test.
Obama's visit underlined Washington's pledge to protect ally Japan in case of military conflict and observers say Abe's trip to Europe is aimed at broadening Tokyo's security ties.
France has already announced a deal to cooperate with Japan in robotics and cyber-defence as well as joint work on advanced helicopters and submarines.
The Yomiuri Shimbun said Tuesday that Japan and France will soon agree to launch a joint study on fast-breeder reactor technologies.
Tokyo is separately eyeing a possible security logistics tie-up known as an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement with European nations. It already has such pacts with the United States and Australia.