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Abe renews pledge to solve territorial row with Russia

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday renewed his pledge to settle a dispute with Russia over four islands off Hokkaido despite failing two months earlier to produce any visible progress during a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At an annual event used as a platform to call for the return of the Russian-held islands, Abe said a so-called new approach is necessary to hammer out a solution and to conclude a peace treaty with Russia more than 70 years after the end of World War II.

“In order to move forward on an issue that has not moved even 1 millimeter for 70 years, we need a future-oriented approach … by envisioning the future rather than dwelling on the past,” Abe said. “This is an important first step to sign a peace treaty.”

The former Soviet Union took control of the islands of Etorofu, Shikotan, Kunashiri, in addition to the Habomai islets, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, at the end of the World War II.

Japan designated Feb. 7 as “Northern Territories Day” to promote awareness of the dispute. On Feb. 7, 1855, Japan and Russia signed the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation, which established Japan’s sovereignty over the islands.

Abe’s pledge comes amid criticism that the he made concessions to Russia during the two-day summit that took place in the prime minister’s hometown of Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, as well as in Tokyo.

At the summit, the leaders agreed to start talks on a special framework to advance economic cooperation and agreed to simplify a system allowing former Japanese residents to visit the islands. But regarding the peace treaty, the leaders only noted its importance while Tokyo offered Moscow ¥300 billion in economic assistance.

Against this backdrop, Abe said the government would launch on Tuesday a panel, which will be headed by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, to study how best to begin work on joint economic projects.

A foreign ministry official also said that peace treaty negotiations are on track, noting that a meeting took place earlier this month between Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba and his counterpart Igor Morgulov in a follow-up to the summit talks. Abe is likely to visit Russia later this year for further negotiations.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for former residents of the islands, whose average age is around 81. Some of those, who participated in Tuesday’s event, lauded Abe’s efforts but did not hide their disappointment over the summit talks.

“Despite high hopes that I had for the talks, it was regrettable that the meeting produced no schedule to solve the issue,” said Kimio Waki, who was born on Kunashiri Island, in a speech delivered at the event. “But I will continue my activism by believing that the joint economic projects will eventually help solve the territorial dispute.”