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Japanese PM renews commitment to pressure Russia on island dispute

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has renewed his commitment to pressure Russia to return four islands that Japan claims and refers to as the Northern Territories, but which Russia administers as the Southern Kurils. 

TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has headed to Russia to attend the Winter Olympics in Sochi -- a move seen by many as a sign of strong support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But his departure came just shortly after he renewed his commitment to pressure Russia to return four islands that Japan claims and refers to as the Northern Territories, but which Russia administers as the Southern Kurils.

The islands were seized by Soviet troops at the end of the World War II.

Former residents of the islands and strong supporters of their return to Japanese control gathered at a rally in Tokyo on Friday.

They commemorated the day in 1855 when Japan and Russia officially recognised the islands were under Japanese jurisdiction.

Prime Minister Abe on Friday outlined his intention to try and resolve the issue.

"The fact that Japan and Russia have not signed a peace treaty is abnormal. Former residents of the islands are aging. I will bear in mind the need to immediately resolve the Northern Territories issue,” he said.

Some former residents of the islands see hope under Mr Abe's leadership.

One former resident said: "There were signs that talks were positive, then the prime minister changed, and matters were left hanging.

“(But) in the case of Prime Minister Abe, he is working hard, with four meetings last year -- so I am hopeful."

Mr Abe left the rally in haste to make it in time to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics despite his very tight schedule -- the diet is in session, while the Tokyo gubernatorial election takes place on Sunday.

He is expected to meet Vladimir Putin on Saturday. It is his fifth bilateral meeting with Mr Putin.

Masashi Nishihara, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, said: "Russian scholars and officials we meet have no particular interest on returning the islands. For the Russians, the territorial issues are over.

“However, President Putin has been saying both sides should negotiate to discuss on it. Prime Minister Abe depends on President Putin for his attitude and willingness to negotiate the islands."

Many former residents of the islands wish for good ties with Russia, despite being forced to leave their homes and ancestral graves behind.

Japan and Russia have not signed a peace treaty after World War II.

Whether the two leaders can pave a way to notch an agreement will be closely watched. 

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