The organizers of an annual rally calling for the return of Russian-held islands off Hokkaido may refrain from issuing a declaration that includes language potentially upsetting for Moscow, according to sources close to the matter, as Japan seeks a breakthrough in the decades-old dispute over the territory.
The declaration may refrain from referring to the disputed territory as “illegally occupied” by Russia — a phrase that has been used at annual rallies in the past, in line with the Japanese government’s position. Russia has rejected the claim.
The annual rally is held in Tokyo on Feb. 7 — designated as Northern Territories Day — and is organized by representatives from both the public and private sectors. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has attended some of the rallies in the past and is expected to do so this year.
Sources said the organizers are considering dropping from the declaration terms that could be deemed sensitive, as ongoing talks to settle the territorial dispute and sign a postwar peace treaty with Russia are believed to be reaching a crucial stage.
Abe is believed to be pursuing a June timeline to reach a broad agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to visit Japan that month for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka.
The sources said organizers have been closely watching the development of the negotiations and are leaning toward the view that they should avoid using terms that risk provoking Russia.
The declaration at last year’s rally said participants “can no longer tolerate this issue being left unresolved,” but according to the sources that phrasing may also be reviewed.
Tokyo maintains that Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan, the three islands, and the Habomai group of islets, are its “inherent territories” that were “illegally occupied” by the Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender in World War II in 1945, while Moscow insists it legitimately acquired them as a result of the war.
Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Kono have also avoided using terms such as “illegal occupation” recently, in a move seen as intended not to adversely affect ongoing bilateral talks on a peace treaty.