National

Japan to track visa-free visitors to Russian-held islands

Kyodo

The government will set up a database to track Japanese who visit the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido via the visa waiver program in an effort to attract new visitors and widen public understanding of the situation, a government source said Sunday.

Without data on the names of the travelers and their destinations, the government can’t distinguish repeat visitors from new visitors to the islands. Most are repeat visitors, like former residents of the islands or activists pressing for their return. The visa-waiver program was originally aimed at promoting exchanges with the Russian islanders, the source said.

The Japanese government will create the database by the end of next March and start using the information for visa-free visits in fiscal 2015 starting next April.

The government expects more younger people to travel to the four islands and take an interest in the bilateral row, the source said.

Since the visa-free program started in 1992, there have been about 11,500 visits to the disputed islands by Japanese and 8,300 visits to Japan by Russian islanders.

The four islands off Hokkaido — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — were seized by the Soviet Union toward the end of World War II in August 1945. The sovereignty spat over the isles has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty, leaving them technically at war.

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