* Abe goes to Russia after rally over bilateral isle spat
* Sochi visit gives Putin high-profile support amid snubs
* Ties with Putin contrast with Japan's China, Korea
* Diplomacy centres on Japan's energy needs, Russia's supply
(Adds details, Abe quotes)
By Antoni Slodkowski
TOKYO, Feb 7 Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
headed to Russia on Friday in a show of support for President
Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Olympics, just hours after
headlining a rally demanding that Moscow return islands seized
Abe's trip to attend the Games and hold his fifth summit
with Putin since taking office 13 months ago, despite the
seven-decade territorial dispute, stands in marked contrast to
Japan's sharply deteriorating ties with China and South Korea,
involving spats over tiny uninhabited islands.
For Putin, the appearance of G7 leader Abe at Friday's
opening ceremony provides a high-profile seal of approval. The
Russian leader faces global criticism over the country's human
rights record and a recent law against gay "propaganda," which
opponents say curtails the rights of homosexuals.
U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois
Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German
President Joachim Gauck are not attending the Games. The U.S.
delegation includes three openly gay representatives.
Russia's domestic policies have not provoked controversy in
Japan, but the territorial dispute forms the backdrop to Abe's
trip. He left after addressing an annual "Northern Territories
Day" gathering, meant to pressure Russia to return the islands,
which Russia says comprise the southern end of its Kurile chain.
"While developing Japan-Russia ties as a whole, we have to
finally solve the biggest so-far unresolved issue, that is the
Northern Territories issue, and to sign the peace treaty with
Russia," said Abe addressing the gathering in Tokyo.
"This is why I will engage in tenacious negotiations with
Russia," Abe added, speaking from a stage with the slogan
"Return the Four Northern Islands" and the Japanese flag at his
Also attending were ministers, lawmakers and representatives
of political parties, as well as former island residents. One
woman who used to live on the islands broke down in tears as she
recounted how she had been made to leave.
Moscow took the islands east of Hokkaido days before Japan
surrendered in World War Two, forcing 17,000 Japanese to leave.
The often acrimonious dispute has kept the two countries from
signing a peace treaty.
Abe and Putin - said to be on a first-name basis - have not
let the dispute block progress in diplomacy centering on natural
gas and other resources.
By contrast, the leaders of China and Korea have rebuffed
Abe's repeated calls to meet. Besides the isle spats, Abe
angered Beijing and Seoul with a December pilgrimage to a shrine
they see as a symbol of Tokyo's past militarism.
Russia, too, criticised the shrine visit, but did not let it
derail ties with Japan.
Abe's Sochi trip is "a manifestation that country-to-country
relations are moving in a good direction," said former prime
minister Yoshiro Mori, who has longstanding ties with Russia and
has done much of the legwork for Abe's bilateral diplomacy. Mori
told reporters the two sides are trying to arrange for Putin to
visit Japan in the autumn.
Abe has made ties with Russia a priority, starting with a
first-in-a-decade Moscow summit. Talks are to continue this
year, although neither side expects a swift end to the dispute.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the opening
of the talks in Moscow last month but stressed that recognition
of the outcome of the war would be vital.
Moscow wants to bolster its position in East Asia as it
warily watches the growth of China's influence in the region.
"Putin, for his part, just like Obama, is shifting towards
East Asia," said Nobuo Shimotomai, professor at Hosei University
in Tokyo. "He aims to do that by playing Russia's soft-power
trump card, that is by selling energy to the region's
countries," he said.
A dramatic transformation is underway in Russia's energy
sector, with oil flows being redirected to Asia via the East
Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline. Russia plans to at least double
oil and gas flows to Asia over the next 20 years, as it pivots
away from export routes to Europe.
That spells opportunity for Japan, which has been forced to
import huge volumes of fossil fuel to replace its entire nuclear
power industry, shut down after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami
wrecked the Fukushima plant.
Japan now consumes a third of global liquefied natural gas
shipments, a key reason for its record 18 months of trade
Russian gas lies on Japan's doorstep and already makes up
about a tenth of its LNG imports. That could rise as Tokyo is
desperate to diversify and slash costs of energy imports.
(Editing by William Mallard and Clarence Fernandez)