TOKYO (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered new talks to resolve the fate of four rocky islands seized from Japan in the closing days of World War Two, prompting Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to consider a visit to Moscow.
Fukuda said he had received a letter in which Putin had expressed his willingness to end the territorial dispute, which has prevented the two countries signing a peace deal in the six decades since the war ended.
“Resolving the Northern Territories issue and concluding a peace treaty is essential to lift Russo-Japanese ties to higher levels,” Fukuda told a packed hall in Tokyo to mark Northern Territories Day, an annual rally to remember the loss of the islands.
Scores of riot police used buses and gates to block off the Russian embassy in Tokyo on Thursday as dozens of right-wing campaigners cruised the streets in loudspeaker vans blaring nationalist music and chanting slogans calling for the return of the islands.
Despite the long-standing row, the two countries have been trying to expand ties. Russia is keen for funds to develop its far eastern regions, while Japan is eager to tap Russia’s booming oil industry to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern energy.
The sparsely populated islands in dispute are in the Kuril chain between Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido and Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, with the closest just 15 km (9 miles) from Hokkaido.
They were seized by the Soviet Union after it declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945, just a week before Japan surrendered, sending about 17,000 Japanese fleeing.
Fukuda, who took office in September, is considering visiting Moscow in late April or early May for talks with Putin, Japanese Foreign Ministry sources said.
“I now realize well that the president wants to resolve the territorial issue,” Fukuda told reporters late on Wednesday. “I would like to proactively work on that.”
Japanese Foreign Ministry sources said Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura might visit Moscow in March to prepare the way for a leaders’ summit.
Moscow had unofficially told Tokyo that Putin wanted to meet Fukuda before leaving office in early May, the sources said.
Putin will step down as president in May, after hitting a constitutional limit of two terms in office, but has made clear he intends to keep political influence by becoming prime minister after he leaves the Kremlin.
“Perhaps, one of the main reasons why Putin wants to hold talks with Prime Minister Fukuda is that he wants to demonstrate he will remain a powerful figure,” one source told Reuters.
Although the police presence was heightened in Tokyo on Thursday, dozens of police are stationed around the Russian embassy at all times, poised to block the road with buses and gates at a moment’s notice as nationalist activists regularly seek to drive up to the embassy with loudspeaker vans blaring.
Reporting by Teruaki Ueno