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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Faces Kurils Showdown in Japan

TOKYO -- Shohei Yamamoto still remembers the dozens of dogs jumping into the sea, struggling against the waves to follow the ship taking him away from his island home.

Yamamoto was among the more than 10,000 Japanese forced to leave their homes after the Soviet military occupied the southern Kuril Islands in the closing days of World War II.

Times have changed dramatically since. But when President Boris Yeltsin talks with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto at this weekend's summit he will find one thing remains unchanged.

Japan wants the islands back.

This dispute has, more than any other single issue, soured relations between Russia and Japan over the past five decades, and has even kept the two countries from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II.

In a meeting in Siberia last November, Yeltsin and Hashimoto promised amid hugs and kisses to work toward a formal treaty by 2000.

Neither side, however, was willing to budge on the territorial dispute.

Officials say the two leaders, who are both under intense political fire from domestic critics, will take up where they left off when they meet Saturday and Sunday in the seaside resort of Kawana, just south of Tokyo, famous for hosting Marilyn Monroe and Joe Di Maggio on their honeymoon in 1954.

The tiny islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai group -- known to the Japanese as the Northern Territories -- total about 10,000 square kilometers, slightly larger than the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.

The waters are rich in fishing grounds and are strategically located in the northern Pacific.

But what is really at stake is national pride.

Russian public opinion is intensely opposed to giving up the islands, which are home to 17,000 Russians. The history of the islands' colonization is complex, and the Russian and Japanese claims are as emotional as they are political.

Even so, relations between Russia and Japan have been gradually thawing.

But Yeltsin's domestic troubles are overwhelming.

Russia watchers say compromising to Japan on the territorial issue would be political suicide for Yeltsin under such conditions.

"Yeltsin can't afford to become isolated at home," said Aoyama Gakuin University professor and Russia expert Shigeki Hakamada. "Any agreement will leave plenty of gray areas."

Hashimoto, meanwhile, is under fire for his failure to bring Japan out of its economic doldrums and will be looking to score some diplomatic points.

Because expectations for a breakthrough on the islands are low, all he really needs is a confirmation from Russia about its commitment to a peace treaty.

For former islanders such as Yamamoto, such political disappointments have been the rule.

After two years of life under the Stalinist occupation, Yamamoto, then 19, was forced to return to the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido, leaving behind his grocery store, the seaside landscape he had learned to love and the many dogs that the islanders owned.

"It was heartbreaking," Yamamoto, now 70, said, fingering sepia-toned photos of smiling villagers and fishing boats. He admitted that a half century has dimmed his memory.

Dimmed, but not erased.