• Kyodo

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A group of 63 Japanese left Nemuro port in eastern Hokkaido on Friday for a four-day trip to Shikotan — one of four Russian-held islands claimed by Japan — for the first trip this year under a visa-free exchange program.

House of Representatives lawmaker Muneo Suzuki, who used to be deeply involved in Japanese-Russian negotiations to resolve the decades-long territorial row, joined the trip for the first time in 5 1/2 years.

“I’ve visited the island numerous times as a lawmaker and as a Cabinet minister,” Suzuki said before boarding the vessel. “I want to see whether the facilities built with the government’s financial assistance are being utilized effectively.”

Suzuki, a Lower House member from Hokkaido who headed the Hokkaido Development Agency between September 1997 and July 1998, heads New Party Daichi, which he formed during the 2005 general election.

The program started in 1992 to promote exchanges between the Russian residents of the islands and the former Japanese residents, who were ousted when the Soviet Union seized the isles at the end of World War II.

But the former islanders in Hokkaido have begun to question the effect of the program.

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