Senior Japanese and Russian officials held their first meeting Saturday to discuss ways of jointly developing four Russia-held islands off Hokkaido claimed by Japan.
The focus is on how the two sides can agree on a special framework without adversely affecting their legal stances on the sovereignty of the islands. The sovereignty issue has prevented to the two nations from signing a peace treaty to officially end World War II.
The two sides discussed projects in such areas as health care and fisheries but still need to work out a legal arrangement to avoid compromising their stances on sovereignty.
“We had many points of agreement among the proposals but (are not yet at) a stage where we have reached a decision,” Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba told reporters after negotiating with Russian counterpart Igor Morgulov.
The diplomats also discussed measures to streamline existing procedures for conducting visa-free trips to the isles by their former Japanese residents.
Japan hopes Russia will allow such trips by air to help the former islanders — whose average age now tops 80 — visit more frequently and quickly. At present, former residents are only allowed to visit the islands in the summer by chartered ship. The voyages are sometimes cancelled because of high waves.
Akiba said at the outset of the talks that Japan hoped to make progress toward concluding a peace treaty in such a way that the countries’ “respective legal stances are not infringed.”
Morgulov said any economic activities need to proceed in a way that “does not contradict Russian laws,” saying that Russia has prepared a package for “social and economic development” of the islands.
At their summit in December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to promote talks on joint activities in areas such as aquaculture, tourism, health care and fisheries, though Putin refused to budget on the sovereignty issue.
The leaders said at the time that building mutual trust through joint economic activities could be “an important step” in resolving the territorial row and signing a peace treaty.
The islands were seized by the Soviet Union after Japan’s surrender ended World War II in August 1945.
Moscow has said it stands by a 1956 Japan-Soviet Union joint declaration, which states that Shikotan and the Habomai islet group will be returned to Japan upon the conclusion of a peace treaty.
On Friday, a group of lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, led by Upper House member Ichita Yamamoto, released a report on potential projects for the two countries and proposed the creation of a new economic zone on and around the islands.
The proposal, based on requests from the city of Nemuro and neighboring municipalities in Hokkaido, calls for joint farming of Hanasaki crab, a local delicacy, and cooperation on seafood processing and sightseeing cruises.
“Based on the proposal, we will negotiate with Japan’s national interests in mind,” said Toshihiro Aiki , the Foreign Ministry official who received the report.
On Wednesday, Hokkaido Gov. Harumi Takahashi requested that Hiroshige Seko, minister of economy, trade and industry, protect assets that were once held on the islands by its former residents.