• Kyodo, jiji

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During a telephone conference Wednesday with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi lodged a formal protest over the Russian premier’s visit in July to one of the disputed territories north of Japan.

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited Etorofu Island, one of a group of Russian-held islands claimed by Japan, marking the first trip to one of the islands off Hokkaido by a Russian premier since August 2018. The island is known in Russia as Iturup.

During his visit, Mishustin mentioned the possibility of a tariff-free zone as part of joint economic activities with Japan on the islands at the center of the two countries’ territorial dispute. Lavrov stopped short of giving any detailed explanation of the plans to Motegi, but they agreed to continue discussions on the matter.

Motegi told Lavrov that Tokyo took note of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent reference to proposals for joint economic activities on the Russian-held islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan.

Shortly after taking office in September last year, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a telephone conference that the two countries would aim to promote territorial negotiations based on the 1956 joint declaration between Japan and the former Soviet Union.

The declaration states that the smaller two of the four islands, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, will be handed over to Japan following the conclusion of a peace treaty.

The long-standing territorial row over the four islands also including Kunashiri has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a postwar peace treaty.

The ministers discussed promotion of joint economic development on the four disputed islands, launched by Suga’s predecessor Shinzo Abe and Putin, as well as exchange projects by former islanders.

In the one-hour telephone conference, their first since last October, the two ministers also affirmed the importance of advancing bilateral cooperation in a range of fields including economic and global issues such as climate change, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.

The two ministers agreed to step up efforts at multiple levels to foster stronger Japan-Russia relations, it said.

Russia wants Japan to recognize that the four islands were legitimately acquired following Tokyo’s surrender in the war in August 1945, while Japan takes the position that their seizure was illegal.

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