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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Wednesday expressed his intention to visit eastern Hokkaido as early as next month to take a look at the Russian-held islands claimed by Japan.

Koizumi is likely to view the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets either from a Self-Defense Forces helicopter or a Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel, government sources said.

He apparently hopes to show the domestic audience his resolve to settle the territorial dispute ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan early next year.

Koizumi is expected to exchange opinions with former residents of the disputed islands and others campaigning for their return to Japan, the sources said.

“I have been considering inspecting the islands,” he told reporters.

He said the idea constitutes a response to a request last month by a group of junior high school students descended from former Japanese residents of the disputed islands.

Koizumi said he will only look at the islands from a distance and not land on them, as that would certainly create a diplomatic row.

“If the prime minister (visits Hokkaido to observe the islands), former residents of the four islands and others involved will be delighted,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told a news conference later in the day. “It will also create momentum for (negotiations on) the return of the territorial islands.”

Hosoda hinted that Koizumi’s visit will last no longer than one day.

He further noted that Koizumi is likely to use a helicopter, as that is the easiest way to take in all of the islands.

It will be the first time a prime minister has viewed the islands since Yoshiro Mori observed them from a Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter in April 2001. Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki was the first to inspect the islands, also by air, in 1981.

The disputed islands were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. The ensuing territorial row has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty.

Visits to the islands are limited. In 1991, Japan and Russia agreed to grant visa-exempt visits on a short term basis until the territorial dispute is resolved. The government has limited Japanese visitors to former residents of the islands, academics, journalists and citizens’ group members seeking their return.

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