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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japan Resolute on Disputed Islands

TOKYO -- Days before a visit by Russia's foreign minister, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi pledged on Monday to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute and sign a peace treaty with Moscow by the end of the year.

Obuchi spoke before a rally of about 1,500 people, including senior Cabinet ministers and top politicians, staged annually to push for the return of islands off Japan's northern coast now held by Russia.

The islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan, were seized by the Soviet Union in the last days of World War II, and the dispute has kept Tokyo and Moscow from signing a peace treaty for decades.

"I will do my utmost to resolve the Northern Territories problem and ensure we achieve our target of signing a peace treaty with Russia by the end of the year," Obuchi said.

Banners reading "Return our islands!" were strung around the packed Tokyo hall. The issue is a favorite with Japan's ultrarightists, and security was tight at the rally. Helmeted riot police kept watch on parked vans blaring nationalist slogans outside.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was scheduled to arrive in Tokyo on Thursday to discuss the quarrel over the islands, known as the Kuril Islands outside Japan, and progress in talks to normalize diplomatic relations.

Frosty bilateral ties have improved in recent years amid regular meetings between Russian and Japanese leaders that have resulted in the two countries setting a goal to sign a peace treaty within 2000. But Boris Yeltsin's resignation as president in December and the renewed crackdown on secessionist Chechnya by his successor, Vladimir Putin, have raised concerns in Japan that Moscow may be less eager than ever to make territorial concessions.

"Even with Putin as the new Russian president we mustn't give up," urged Taiko Kodama, one of the leaders of Japan's movement to get back the Kuril Islands.

Fears of a popular backlash if the Kremlin further whittles down remnants of the Soviet empire have traditionally been one of the main obstacles to progress in the islands dispute.

Obuchi said he regretted the resignation of Yeltsin, who had been an enthusiastic proponent of the Russo-Japanese detente. But he expressed confidence that the two sides would be able to pursue a deal on the islands under Putin.

"The progress we made last year in building trust between Japan and Russia has already created a historical momentum," Obuchi said. He said Putin gave assurances in a telephone conversation after he took office that Russia's foreign policy toward Japan would not change.

Japan acquired the four Kuril Islands in a treaty with Moscow in 1875. The Soviet Union seized the islands toward the end of World War II, a move Japan has protested ever since as illegal.

Not everybody at the rally shared Obuchi's optimism that a settlement could be reached. "With Putin in power, the Russians will be even more unwilling to give them [the islands] up," said an 83-year-old participant, who only gave his surname Tsuchiura.