TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a new approach to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia on Tuesday (Feb 7) as Japan marked Northern Territories Day.
The islands, known as the Southern Kuril islands in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, have been at the root of strained relations between the two countries since the end of World War Two when soldiers from the former Soviet Union seized the islands from Japan.
"In order to tackle this issue which has not made any progress towards a resolution for the past 71 years, we need a new, forward way of thinking and deliberation about the future of the islands rather than just clinging to the historical argument," Abe said.
"In a new approach based on such an idea, we agreed to launch a negotiation towards a special treaty to allow joint economic activities on the four Northern Islands," said Abe.
The four rocky islands consist of Iturup in Russian or Etorofu in Japanese, Kunashir in Russian or Kunashiri in Japanese, Shikotan in both Russian and Japanese, and the Habomai group of islets, also the same in both languages. The islands have limited economic or strategic value, but the question of sovereignty touches national pride on both sides.
About 17,000 Japanese were living on the islands when the Soviet Union invaded in 1945, forcing them to leave. Now, an estimated 14,000 Russians live there, mostly eking out a living by fishing.
In December, Abe invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to his hometown Yamaguchi in western Japan, seeking progress on the territorial row that has prevented their countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending World War Two.
Abe and Putin wrapped up the two days of talks, which continued in Tokyo, with numerous economic deals but no big breakthrough on the territorial dispute.
NHK reported last week that Japan and Russia were set to launch the first round of bilateral consultations on joint economic activities on the disputed islands in Tokyo in March.