Pope Francis said Wednesday he intends to visit Japan next year, in what would be the first papal visit to the country in nearly 40 years, according to the Vatican.

"I would like to communicate my intention to visit Japan next year. I hope to fulfill this wish," Pope Francis said during an audience with representatives of a Japanese religious association.

(Pope Francis in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in December 2017)

The pope -- who was invited to Japan by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when they met at the Vatican in 2014 -- has previously expressed a desire to visit the country but has never mentioned a possible date.

The late Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit the country in 1981.

Leaders of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were devastated by U.S. atomic bombings in 1945 in World War II, have also directly asked the pope during public audiences at the Vatican to visit and send a message toward the abolishment of nuclear weapons.

Pope John Paul II visited the two cities among other places during his stay in Japan.