MOSCOW • Japan and Russia have committed to a Tokyo visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin after the two neighbours agreed to restart peace negotiations following a break that lasted more than a year and a half.
"It's a step forward," Japanese Foreign Ministry chief spokesman Yasuhisa Kawamura said in Moscow, commenting on the decision to hold a new round of talks next month aimed at resolving a World War II territorial dispute.
Four islands, called the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, were seized by Soviet forces in the last days of the war. Japan has demanded their return, while Russia has offered in the past to give back two of them. As a result, the countries never signed a peace treaty.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Japan to accept "post-war historical realities" at a joint news conference in Moscow with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida on Monday.
Mr Kishida indicated in his remarks, which were translated into Russian, that the two countries should "create a mutually acceptable solution to the territorial issue" of the islands Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai.
However, Mr Lavrov appeared to reject the Japanese term for the islands. "Neither the 'northern territories' of Japan nor the 'northern territories' of Russia are the subject of our dialogue," he said.
The upcoming round of talks scheduled for Oct 8 in the Russian capital "will be hard work", Mr Lavrov said, noting that the Russian and Japanese positions "still differ greatly".
"It would be important to ensure that a new summit is filled with substance," Mr Lavrov added. "To pose preconditions for high-level meetings is hardly productive."
In April 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Mr Putin agreed after talks in Moscow that the Russian leader would visit Japan by the end of 2015, and that the two sides would seek a "mutually acceptable" solution to the island dispute.
Ties have been strained since the Japanese decision to adopt sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict in line with other members of the Group of Seven industrialised nations.
A visit last month by Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to one of the islands was met with strong protests by Tokyo, reportedly even throwing Mr Kishida's visit into doubt.
Mr Abe said Mr Medvedev's landing on the island of Iturup "conflicts with Japan's position" and is "extremely regrettable".
BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE