• Kyodo

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An approach to seek the initial return of two of four disputed islands that are administered by Russia but claimed by Japan has re-emerged in Tokyo as the government tries to advance talks over the decades-old territorial row, bilateral diplomatic sources said Thursday.

The move comes on the eve of planned talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a two-day economic forum through Saturday in the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok.

Abe and Putin are expected to discuss Putin’s anticipated visit to Japan in December.

The territorial row over the islands off Hokkaido — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — has prevented the two countries from signing a post-World War II peace treaty.

Tokyo aims to take the “two-track” approach that calls for the initial return of Shikotan and the Habomais, the smallest of the four islands, while simultaneously continuing talks on the fate of the two remaining islands.

The approach was reportedly proposed om March 2001 by then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to Putin.

Taking advantage of an eight-point Japanese economic cooperation proposal, Abe is seeking to urge Moscow, which apparently aims to end the discussion by returning only the two islands, to change its attitude, the sources said.

“The 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration that specifies the handover of the Habomais and Shikotan is the starting point for negotiations. Prime Minister Abe has already conveyed his intention to seek to resolve (the issue) based on the declaration to Mr. Putin,” said one of the sources, referring to the declaration that stipulates Moscow will return the two islands after concluding a peace treaty with Japan.

Another source also said Kunashiri and Etorofu are unlikely to be returned to Japan soon, as Russian troops are stationed on them.

The Soviet Union occupied the islands shortly after Japan surrendered in World War II in 1945.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo said Thursday that 42 percent of Russians surveyed said both Tokyo and Moscow should mutually agree on the future of the four islands, up from 32 percent in the previous poll in 2010.

The latest telephone survey conducted between March and April covered 3,600 Russians nationwide aged older than 18, according to the ministry.

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