Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left Friday for Sochi, Russia, to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics and meet President Vladimir Putin with the aim of accelerating the negotiations over the bilateral territorial dispute.
Abe met with Putin four times last year. His attendance at the ceremony, despite the absence of U.S. and many European leaders in protest over Russia’s handling of human rights issues, is designed to help them grow closer, which Tokyo hopes will help solve the long-standing fight over the Russian-held islands off northeast Hokkaido.
At their summit Saturday in the Black Sea resort, the two leaders are also expected to discuss further deepening of economic ties, including Japanese investment in Russia’s Far East, where abundant oil and gas reserves have been confirmed.
“I’m determined to deal with negotiations patiently to resolve the Northern Territories issue and conclude a peace treaty with Russia, while attempting to develop Japan-Russia relations as a whole,” Abe said Friday at a national convention in Tokyo seeking the return of the islands.
“It is abnormal that Japan and Russia do not have a peace treaty although as long as 68 years have passed since the end of World War II,” Abe said, adding that he will deal with the matter by keeping in mind that the territorial dispute has to be resolved as soon as possible because former residents of the islands are growing old.
The Soviet Red Army occupied the islands at the end of the war in 1945.
Japan has said that if Russia acknowledges the islands as belonging to Japan, it is prepared to respond flexibly to the timing and manner of their return. But Russia has shown no sign of recognizing Japanese ownership.
Abe said he is going to Sochi to demonstrate the importance Japan places on its relations with Russia.
His presence at the Olympics will be significant, as U.S. and European leaders have decided not to attend the opening ceremony to protest anti-gay legislation enacted by Russia last year.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will also attend the ceremony, raising the possibility Abe could make contact with him at a time when relations between Japan and China are strained due to the Senkaku Islands dispute and differing perceptions of wartime history.