Kishida says Japan-Russia ties are ‘difficult’

by Feb 8, 2024Featured Article, News

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday said Japan’s relations with Russia are currently “difficult” amid Moscow’s war in Ukraine, but pledged to continue making efforts to resolve a territorial dispute and sign a peace treaty.

At an annual rally in Tokyo held to demand the return of Moscow-controlled, Tokyo-claimed islands off Hokkaido, Kishida also urged Russia to restart visa-free exchange projects, including those that allow visits by former Japanese residents of the islands to family graves.

“Regrettably, the issue of the Northern Territories has not been resolved and a peace treaty has not been concluded,” Kishida said at the event, referring to the Japanese name of the disputed islands that are known as the Southern Kurils in Russia.

“Resuming the exchange activities is one of the top priorities in the Japan-Russia relationship,” he added.

Negotiations on the exchange programs, such as one that allows former residents to visit, have stalled as Tokyo’s ties with Moscow have deteriorated since Russia invaded its neighbor in February 2022.

Japan has maintained its position that the then Soviet Union illegally seized the four islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — soon after the Asian country’s surrender in World War II on Aug 15, 1945. Russia considers its annexation of the areas legitimate.

The long-standing territorial row has prevented Japan and Russia from signing a postwar peace treaty, while their talks regarding the islands have been suspended since Tokyo imposed economic sanctions on Moscow in the wake of the war in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, government officials, former island residents and civic groups who participated in the rally adopted a statement that labels Russia’s administration of the four islets as an “illegal occupation,” the same as last year’s event.

The phrase used at the government-sponsored rally is a harsher expression than in 2021 and 2022 when the wording “occupation without legal basis” was adopted.

In 2019 and 2020, the statement did not describe Moscow’s control of the islands as being illegal at all, as then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was attempting to secure the return of the islets through friendly negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The event has been held every year on “Northern Territories Day,” which falls on Feb 7. On that day in 1855, Japan and Russia signed a Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation, drawing a national border that put the four islands inside Japanese territory.