• Kyodo

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With their annual visa-free visits on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, former residents of Russian-held islands off Hokkaido may get the chance to pay respects to their ancestors from the air on chartered flights instead, local officials said Wednesday.

The Hokkaido Prefectural Government is considering chartering a plane to be flown near the disputed islands in October to November, the officials said.

Five flights from Nemuro Nakashibetsu Airport are being eyed with some 20 on board each time, they said. During the one-hour flight, the plane will fly near the Habomai islet chain and Kunashiri, two of the four disputed islands.

The disputed islands, collectively called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, also include Etorofu and Shikotan islands.

“We want to do as much as we can by taking into account the desires of the former island residents who say they want to visit the islands,” said an official at the prefectural government.

The annual visa-free visits by Japanese nationals to the islands are usually held between May and October. They are also designed to foster mutual understanding with current island residents.

Japan is struggling to resolve the long-standing territorial dispute, which has prevented the two countries from signing a postwar peace treaty.

The Soviet Union seized the islands following Japan’s surrender in World War II in 1945, saying it acquired them as a legitimate outcome of the war. Tokyo says the seizure was illegal.

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