The start of this year's visa-free exchange program between Japan and Russia is set to be postponed amid the coronavirus crisis, Japanese government sources said Thursday.
The Russian side is concerned that the new coronavirus could be brought to Russian-held northwestern Pacific islands covered by the exchange program at a time when infections are growing in Japan, the sources said.
The Japanese side aims to begin this year's program in July. It normally starts in May. The islands are at the center of the two countries' decades-old territorial dispute.
The Japanese and Russian governments had planned to hold talks in Sakhalin in Russia's Far East region on March 12 to decide this year's schedules for the program. But Russia refused to hold the talks following a surge in the number of coronavirus cases in the northernmost Japan prefecture of Hokkaido, which is close to Sakhalin, the sources said.
Although the two sides have since been continuing to coordinate mainly through email, no major progress has been made reflecting strong concerns in Russia over the virus situation in Japan, the sources said.
The visa-free exchange program was launched in 1992 to help deepen mutual understanding between Japanese and Russian people.
From Japan, former residents of the islands, lawmakers and other people have visited the islands, located off Hokkaido.
The islands were seized by the former Soviet Union from Japan at the end of World War II. The territorial dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a peace treaty to formally end their wartime hostilities.
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