VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA – Japanese tourists on Wednesday began a visit to two disputed Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, as part of joint economic activities by the Japanese and Russian governments that are intended to build trust.
The five-day trial tour by 44 people including government officials will take participants to sightseeing spots on Kunashiri and Etorofu, two of the four disputed islands that are referred to in Japan as the Northern Territories.
Japanese tourism to the islands is a pilot project for joint economic activity on them, with Tokyo hoping it will pave the way for resolving the long-standing territorial dispute. In the current tour, the two sides are looking to identify areas for improvement before a full-scale launch of the sightseeing tours.
“By clarifying the problems, we hope to make it into a full-scale business in the future,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo. “In order to resolve the territorial row and sign a peace treaty, we would like to steadily implement steps toward realizing the project.”
The tour was initially scheduled to be held from Oct. 11, based on an agreement reached at a summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June in Osaka, but was postponed following a last-minute request by Moscow for undisclosed reasons. On Wednesday, the tour participants arrived on Kunashiri and visited a candle-shaped standing rock on a beach — a noted scenic spot.
They are set to tour a museum and a Russian Orthodox church by Thursday, and then a volcano and hot spring on Etorofu later in the week. Russian authorities said the schedule could change depending on the weather.
Because Japan and Russia have not yet agreed on a legal framework for allowing Japanese tourists and business operators to travel freely to the islands, a special arrangement was made to allow the visit under a visa-free program that was originally intended for experts and former residents of the islands.
The dispute over the islands, which also include Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, has prevented the two countries from signing a postwar peace treaty. Japan maintains that the islands were illegally seized by Russia following Tokyo’s surrender in World War II on Aug. 15, 1945. Moscow sees the seizure as a legitimate outcome of the war.