Plans by the Russian military to hold live-fire exercises off the disputed Northern Territories prompted a rebuke by Tokyo late last week, the chief government spokesman said Monday.
The drills are planned for waters around Kunashiri, a land mass that is clearly visible from the shores of Hokkaido.
“We’ve lodged a protest through a diplomatic channel because the drills are linked to Russia’s military buildup on the Northern Territories,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
The protest was made last Thursday after Russia notified Japan that it would conduct exercises off Kunashiri for six days from Monday, according to Japanese government officials.
Tokyo and Moscow are at loggerheads over the four islands, collectively called the Northern Territories by Japan and the Southern Kurils by Russia. In addition to Kunashiri, the group includes Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islets.
Japan lodged a similar protest in April after Russia said it would conduct live-fire drills off Kunashiri.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying to push Moscow to talk about the islands’ return. But despite his efforts and months of bilateral negotiations, there has been no breakthrough in resolving the decades-long territorial dispute that has prevented the two countries from signing a postwar peace treaty.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Etorofu last Friday, in his first trip to one of the disputed islands since 2015. The visit likewise drew a protest from Tokyo.
Japan maintains that the islands were illegally seized by the Soviet Union following its 1945 surrender in World War II. Russia claims it legitimately acquired the islands as a result of the war.
When Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the fringes of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in late June, they agreed to continue bilateral negotiations.
Abe is expected to attend an economic forum in Vladivostok in early September, Suga said, indicating that another Abe-Putin summit may be held.
“It’s because there are differences that the Japanese and Russian leaders need to meet face-to-face and hold talks,” Suga said.