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Japan set to guarantee residency rights of Russians living on Northern Territories

Russian citizens living in the Northern Territories will be allowed to stay should the islands be returned to Japanese sovereignty, under a new position decided recently by the Japanese government.

The Northern Territories are a series of islands northeast of Hokkaido that are claimed by Japan but have been under Russian control since they were occupied by the Soviet Union at the close of World War II. The new proposal regarding Russian residents is one concrete pillar of the "new approach" to the long-deadlocked and often quarrelous negotiations over the islands that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced at their leaders' summit in May this year, and is also an expression of Japan's fresh attitude to the talks.

Abe will be in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East for two days starting on Sept. 2. The new plan is being put forward for possible discussion during the Abe-Putin meeting on Sept. 2, and during vice-ministerial level talks on a formal peace treaty that have been held about once every two months between the two countries' foreign ministries. Japan will press Moscow to consider the new proposal, and hopes to prompt Putin to signal a proactive attitude to the plan when he visits Japan this December.

According to a Japanese government source, since the May Abe-Putin summit, Russia has communicated that "since it was Japan that proposed the 'new approach,' Japan should present some concrete proposals." There are about 17,000 Russians living in the Northern Territories, most of them working in the fishery and marine product processing industry.

In the event the islands are returned to Japan, Tokyo believes it would be difficult to make these residents leave or to create some kind of joint Japan-Russia administration. As such, Japan judged it was necessary to guarantee a certain level of treatment for these residents. Some within the Japanese government are apparently in favor of granting the Russian residents extensive rights and a high degree of self-government.

Japan had already indicated that it would respect "the human rights, interests and hopes" of the Russians in the Northern Territories. However, Tokyo had not explicitly recognized their right to continue living there. Doing so now is aimed at pushing forward concrete negotiations on any potential return of the islands to Japan, including the timing and conditions.

However, at the May summit, Prime Minister Abe also spoke of the homesickness of the territories' former Japanese residents. There are some in the Japanese government who want to demand that Russia recognize the residency rights of these former islanders in any agreement, as well as allow Japanese to move to the islands.

Japanese who used to live in the Northern Territories are currently allowed to make short trips there to visit family graves and for cultural exchange activities. The proposal to grant residential rights to the current Russian population after the islands' potential return to Japan is an attempt to establish a precedent for other potential rights. However, this also suggests that Japan could recognize Russia's control of the territories, which may spark clashes of opinion within the government.

Moscow has long insisted that the Northern Territories belong to Russia based on the outcome of World War II. Tokyo has responded by saying they are traditionally part of Japan, leading to a deadlock. The "new approach" proposed by Prime Minister Abe was based on the assumption that Russia would eventually return the islands to Japan, and it could be said he was aiming to steer the issue toward how the islands would be governed if they were returned to Japan.

Still, it remains unknown how much Russia is willing to concede. Many essential points need to be addressed besides the residency rights of the Russian population, such as what shape local self-government and administrative structures would take. Then there are the fussy but important details of registering private property, how to treat the assets of Russian companies, and how to sort out education and schools. With all these issues in play, it's impossible to know if negotiations will play out exactly as Japan hopes.

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