• Kyodo, Jiji

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Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited a Moscow-controlled, Tokyo-claimed island off northern Japan on Monday for the first time since last July's constitutional amendment barring the country from ceding territory to a foreign power, Russian officials said.

The visit to Etorofu Island, known as Iturup in Russia, by Mishustin, second in power after President Vladimir Putin, was the first trip to the disputed isles by the prime minister since his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev's visit in August 2019.

In Tokyo, Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori lodged a protest with Russian Ambassador to Japan Mikhail Galuzin over Mishustin's visit, a ministry official said.

Earlier in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Mishustin's trip "conflicts with Japan's consistent position on the Northern Territories and is very regrettable."

Through the visit by the country's No. 2 official, Russia apparently emphasized its effective control of the disputed islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan.

Mishustin inspected a hospital on the island on Monday as part of a four-day trip to the Russian Far East and Siberia, according to the Russian government.

He then headed to a seafood processing complex on the island, according to local reports.

Prior to his trip, Tokyo had asked Moscow for the prime minister not to visit the island, Japanese government sources said.

According to Russian news agency Interfax, Mishustin said Monday he has made a proposal about setting up a tariff-free special zone on the Kuril Islands to attract foreign investments and will discuss the plan with Putin upon returning to Moscow.

Putin said Friday he told Mishustin prior to the premier's trip to pay extra attention to the isles, adding Mishustin made a good proposal on the joint economic activities by Japan and Russia on the four islands known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia.

In December 2016, Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to start joint economic activities on the Russian-held islands in five fields including tourism and aquaculture. But little progress has since been made because bilateral talks have stalled over a proposed special system allowing such projects to be implemented without infringing on the two countries' legal stances.

Shortly after taking office in September last year, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Putin agreed in their first teleconference that the two countries will aim to promote territorial negotiations based on a 1956 joint declaration between Japan and the former Soviet Union.

The dispute over the islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — seized by the Soviet Union after Japan's surrender in World War II in 1945 has prevented the two countries from concluding a postwar peace treaty.

Russia wants Japan to recognize that the four islands were legitimately acquired following Tokyo's surrender in the war, while Japan takes the view that the seizure was illegal.

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