The deputy foreign ministers of Japan and Russia met Friday in Tokyo to resume talks for settling the long-standing territorial dispute over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama is representing Japan while the Russian delegation is led by Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov. Similar talks were held last August in Moscow.

Since the summit last April between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Vladimir Putin, Tokyo and Moscow have moved closer, with the two countries reinforcing common interests in areas such as energy and security. Several summits and talks between top officials have followed. Tokyo hopes to grab the momentum to break the territorial stalemate and conclude a peace treaty with Russia.

Japan has said that if Russia acknowledges the four islands as belonging to Japan, Tokyo is prepared to respond flexibly to the timing and manner of their actual return. But Russia has shown no signs of recognizing Japanese sovereignty.

After day-long talks at the Foreign Ministry’s Iikura guesthouse, Sugiyama said the two had practical and meaningful discussions on the deadlocked territorial dispute.

“We discussed (the territorial dispute) from historical, legal and many different aspects. We’ve spent the whole afternoon on this matter, talking to the extent that I’ve become bit exhausted,” Sugiyama told reporters after the eight-hour meeting, of which five hours were dedicated to the territorial issue.

“We had talks last August (in Moscow), but this was the first for me to have such earnest discussions using hours covering various issues (on the territorial dispute),” Sugiyama said.

But holding such meaningful discussions just one time is not enough to resolve the long-standing issue, he said, adding that Tokyo and Moscow will arrange to schedule the next negotiations.

Along with the territorial dispute, the two discussed economic cooperation and cultural exchanges as well as the situation in North Korea, the Middle East and Central Asia, he said.

The meeting precedes talks Saturday between Foreign Ministers Fumio Kishida and Sergey Lavrov in Germany, Abe’s attendance at the Feb. 7 opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics and an expected visit to Japan by Putin this year.

The dispute over the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a peace treaty for World War II. The four islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — were seized by Soviet forces in the closing days of World War II after Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.

Abe and Putin agreed in their April meeting in Moscow to resume the sovereignty negotiations. Since then, the two leaders have held four meetings and are expected to hold another one in February when Abe visits Sochi.

“Although there still remains a wide gap between the positions of Japan and Russia concerning the issue of the Northern Territories, the main pending issue, Japan will persistently engage in negotiations in order to resolve the issue of the attribution of the four islands and conclude a peace treaty with Russia,” Kishida said Jan. 24 in an address on the first day of the current Diet session.

Information from Kyodo added

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