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Gov't-backed rally muted on Russia-held islets issue amid treaty talks

A meeting to seek the return of four Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands off Hokkaido, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, is held in Tokyo on Feb. 7, 2019. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A government-backed rally held in support of efforts to win back Russian-held islands to Japan's north issued a restrained statement on Thursday, with organizers cognizant of the possible negative impact it may have on ongoing talks with Moscow.

While still demanding the return of the islands, the statement adopted at the protest in Tokyo, organized by the government as well as public and private groups, omitted phrases used in the past that could inflame tensions with Moscow.

In the statement, it refrained from describing the four contested islets off Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido as being "illegally occupied."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his resolve to advance the post-World War II peace pact negotiations which have been stalled over the territorial dispute, saying in his address to the gathering, "It is not easy to settle the issue that has remained unsolved for more than 73 years after the end of the war. But we have to accomplish this."

The prime minister said he intends to proceed with "collaborative work to find a mutually acceptable solution" through building a relationship of trust between the Japanese and Russian people.

The annual gathering was the first since Abe agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin last November to step up talks toward concluding a treaty based on a 1956 joint declaration between the countries.

The declaration stipulates that the smaller two of the four disputed areas -- Shikotan Island and the Habomai islet group -- be transferred to Japan from the then-Soviet Union. The remaining two are Kunashiri and Etorofu islands.

"We will seek to build true peace and friendship between the two countries and engage in campaigns demanding the return of the Northern Territories actively more than ever," the statement said, using the Japanese term for the islands, which are named the Southern Kurils in Russia.

Tokyo maintains that all of the four islets are "inherent territories" of the country that were "illegally occupied" by the Soviet Union following its 1945 surrender in the war, while Moscow insists it legitimately acquired them.

In Diet sessions earlier this week, Abe refused to say the islands are Japan's "inherent territories" and instead repeated they are "islands over which Japan has sovereignty."

But the statement from the rally clarified they are "inherent territories of our country" and vowed to support efforts to proceed with negotiations.

Abe is believed to desire a broad agreement be reached in June when Putin is expected to visit Japan for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka.

He is now leaning toward accepting a peace pact if Moscow hands over Shikotan and Habomai, recognizing that it is unlikely that Japan will be able to secure all of the islands, government sources have said. They account for only 7 percent of the total landmass of the disputed islands.

The ceremony has been held annually on "Northern Territories Day," which falls on Feb. 7. On the same day in 1855, Japan and Russia concluded the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation, drawing a national border that put the four islands in Japanese territory.

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