Japan Premier's Visit to Improve Ties

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will cut short a planned overseas trip and visit Russia later this month to improve ties between the former World War II foes, a government spokesman said Wednesday.

Fukuda has canceled tentative plans to visit Britain, France and Germany in early May in part because of a tight parliamentary schedule at home, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said.

But the Japanese prime minister will visit Russia for three days from April 25 for talks with President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, he said.

Fukuda has said he wants to meet leaders of Group of Eight countries before hosting the annual G8 summit in Hokkaido on July 7-9.

Fukuda plans to have separate talks with Putin and Medvedev on April 26 on a range of bilateral and global issues, including a long-running territorial row and global warming, Machimura said.

Fukuda's visit to the country is aimed at raising bilateral ties to a "new dimension," Machimura told reporters.

In talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Monday, Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura pressed Russia to end a territorial row over islands that has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty.

The dispute over the islands, known as the Kuril Islands in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, has overshadowed Russian-Japanese relations for more than 60 years.

Japan says resolving the dispute would attract a new wave of Japanese investment in Russia.

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 the Middle East for its energy needs.

The islands lie between Japan's northern island of Hokkaido and Russia's far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula. The closest is just 15 kilometers from Hokkaido, where Japan will host this year's G-8 summit.

The Soviet Union seized the islands after it declared war on Japan just a week before the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. Neither side accepts the other's sovereignty over the islands.

Trade between Russia and Japan has risen fivefold since 2002. Major investors include carmaker Toyota, which last year opened its first plant in Russia.