Japan plans to hold talks with Russia on possible visa-free visits by air to four disputed islands to help former Japanese islanders make trips more frequently and faster, according to a government source.
Japan hopes to introduce the plane trips to the islands — which Japan has claimed since the former Soviet Union’s seizure of the territory at the end of World War II — by March 2018, the source said.
Former residents are only allowed to visit the islands in the summer by chartered ship, and voyages are sometimes canceled due to high waves.
Tokyo hopes the use of aircraft will encourage Moscow to allow former islanders, whose average age now tops 80, to visit their family graves on the islands more often, the source said.
Some 50 Japanese gravesites have been confirmed on Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan islands and the Habomai islet group.
The plan to use aircraft comes after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed at their summit in December to streamline the existing system for visits by Japanese former residents to the disputed islands.
Japan will ask Russia to ensure the same procedures applied to voyages by chartered boat are applied to the flights, the source said.
Under the current visa-free visit system, Japanese citizens have to take a three-hour trip by boat from Hokkaido’s Nemuro to Kunashiri, one of the four disputed islands, where they get clearance regardless of which island they are headed to.
The envisioned plan would enable them to fly from Nakashibetsu to Kunashiri or Etorofu with a flight of less than an hour, the source said.
Those wishing to travel to Shikotan and the Habomais, however, would still need to use a chartered ship as there is no airport there, the source said.
Abe plans to visit Russia for another round of talks with Putin in April, other government sources said earlier, in a bid to resolve the decades-old territorial row, which has prevented the two countries from signing a postwar peace treaty.