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A program that enables former Japanese residents of Russian-held northwestern Pacific islands to pray for their ancestors while in the air kicked off Wednesday.

The program, using chartered flights, was set up at the request of former residents and organized by the Japanese side as an independent event at a time when all other programs slated this year under a Japan-Russia special exchange initiative related to the islands were canceled due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. It is the first time for the Japanese side to carry out an event independently under the bilateral initiative.

The islands, located off Hokkaido, were seized by the former Soviet Union from Japan at the end of World War II and have long been claimed by Japan. The islands are known as the Northern Territories in Japan.

A total of five chartered flights are planned under the program — two on Wednesday and three on Sunday.

The first flight, carrying some 30 former residents, left Nemuro Nakashibetsu Airport in the Hokkaido town of Nakashibetsu around 10:45 a.m. Wednesday. “I put my hands together” to offer prayers from the air, said Hirotoshi Kawata, an 86-year-old former resident of Tarakuto, part of the Habomai group of islets. “I’m very grateful” for the program, he said with a smile.

Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki, who was also aboard the flight, said, “It’s important to hear the voices of former residents and reflect them in specific projects.”

According to the government of Hokkaido, a total of some 130 former residents will take the five flights to pray for ancestors who were buried on the islands from the air. Each flight will take about an hour. Normally, former residents travel to the islands and visit the graves of ancestors there to pray for them.

Under the Japan-Russia exchange initiative, about 30 rounds of visits to the islands, including visa-free travel, by experts and other people from Japan had been planned for this year. All of them were called off due to the virus crisis.

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