A group of former residents of the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday to express their wishes to return to their hometowns.
They asked Abe to hand a letter of request to Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two meet Thursday in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
In response, Abe said he will work hard to make progress on the territorial dispute even if it’s “just one step forward” during the Yamaguchi summit.
Abe hinted that he expects achieving any major concessions from Moscow will be difficult.
He invited seven former residents of the four islands northeast of Hokkaido, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuril Islands in Russia, to the prime minister’s official residence for Monday’s meeting.
Kimio Waki, 75, a former resident of Kunashiri Island, said only about 6,000 of the 17,000 former residents are still alive, as Moscow has occupied the islands for more than seven decades.
“Former island residents have wished for a day of homecoming. But their wish has not been fulfilled,” Waki told Abe as reporters looked on.
According to an association of former residents headed by Waki, the average age of the surviving members was 81.3 as of last March.
“We are holding out much hope for the Dec. 15 summit,” Waki said.
Meanwhile, Abe pointed out that Japan and Russia have yet to conclude a World War II peace treaty due to the territorial dispute.
“I’d like to make my best efforts to achieve some progress toward resolution of the long-stalled issue over the Northern Territories, even if it may be just one step forward,” Abe said. “I will hold the summit with a determination to put an end to the territorial issue within my generation.”
Abe has built up close ties with Putin and has proposed major economic development projects for Russia in an effort to win concessions in the territorial dispute.
But recently Putin has toughened his stance, and the chance that Russia will return any of the islands looks slim, Japanese officials have indicated.
On Aug. 9, 1945, five days before Japan announced its surrender to end World War II, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, later occupying Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan islands as well as the Habomai islet group, and expelling the Japanese residents.
Tokyo has maintained that the islands are “inherent territories” of Japan throughout history and that Moscow has “illegally occupied” them.
By accepting the 1943 Cairo Communique, Japan agreed to renounce all territories it took “by violence and greed” since the beginning of World War I. But Japan has maintained that the Russian-held islands are not covered by the Cairo Communique.