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Early announcement of Putin's Dec. visit to Japan comes as a surprise

Russian President Vladimir Putin's aide told Russian media on Aug. 30 that Putin's visit to Japan is set for December. The Japanese government is expecting that Putin's meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will help advance negotiations over a bilateral peace treaty and the dispute over the Russian-held four islands off Hokkaido.

It was, however, an unexpected twist of events that Moscow announced Putin's Japan trip schedule ahead of the Japan-Russia summit meeting slated for September in Vladivostok. Some within the Japanese government have expressed reservations about the move in consideration for the United States and other countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia over the Ukrainian crisis. "If we openly hail Russia's announcement, we can't face the United States and European countries," one government source said. Therefore, government officials are trying to discern the reason behind Moscow's move.

Arrangements for Putin's visit to Japan had been lagging since the fall of 2014. Tokyo is going to welcome Putin's visit to Japan as it aims to advance talks over the Northern Territories issue -- over which Prime Minister Abe has expressed a strong desire for settlement -- through repeated reciprocal visits by the two leaders. During his trip, Putin is expected to visit Abe's home prefecture of Yamaguchi in western Japan.

A source close to the Japanese Foreign Ministry said, "Moscow may be aiming to disrupt the cooperation between Japan and the United States by boasting that 'Russia was invited by Japan.'"

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