VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA – The Japanese government has lodged a protest with Russia over Tuesday’s visits by senior Russian government officials to Shikotan, one of the four Pacific islands held by Russia and claimed by Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday.
Tokyo insisted that the visits conflict with its legal standpoint toward the islands, which were seized from Japan by Soviet troops around the end of World War II.
The protest was made through diplomatic channels on Tuesday, according to the Foreign Ministry.
Sergei Ivanov, special presidential representative for environmental protection and transport, and communications minister Konstantin Noskov visited Shikotan Island to attend a ceremony to mark the operation of an optical fiber communication line between Sakhalin, in Russia’s Far East, and the disputed islands.
It is rare for high-ranking Russian officials to visit the island of Shikotan. Ivanov is known to have close ties with Putin.
The fiber communication line is intended to improve the unstable and slow internet service on the islands. “This is going to greatly improve the everyday lives of the people on our Russian islands,” Ivanov was quoted as saying by the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East.
The visit is seen as particularly sensitive as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is believed to be focusing on securing a deal with Russia on a handover of the smaller two of the four disputed islands — Shikotan and the Habomai islet group.
“We’ll continue to tenaciously engage in negotiations with Russia under our basic policy to resolve the territorial problem and conclude the peace treaty,” Suga, Japan’s top government spokesman, told a news conference.
The dispute over the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, has prevented the conclusion of a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities. The islands were seized by the Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender in World War II in 1945.
Expectations have been growing in Japan that the island of Shikotan may be returned.
Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed last year to accelerate peace treaty talks based on a 1956 joint declaration, which mentions the transfer from Moscow to Tokyo of Shikotan and the Habomai islet group once a peace treaty is concluded.