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Northern Territories rallies take low-key approach amid talks with Russia

TOKYO/NEMURO, Hokkaido -- A government-backed rally focusing on the Russian-held four islands off Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido adopted a low-key statement on Feb. 7, in an apparent attempt to avoid any adverse effect on ongoing bilateral territorial talks with Moscow.

During the 39th annual event held in Tokyo, a statement calling for "the promotion of actions seeking the settlement of the Northern Territories issue" was adopted over the Japan-claimed four islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu off Hokkaido. The move marked a step backward from previous statements until last year, which advocated "the promotion of actions seeking the return of the Northern Territories."

In addition, this year's declaration avoided describing the four islets as "illegally occupied," in apparent consideration for Moscow's recent moves to step up its claim of sovereignty over those isles. While last year's communique stated, "It has been 72 years since the Northern Territories were illegally occupied," this year's statement says, "Seventy-three years have passed without the conclusion of a peace treaty" between Japan and Russia.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura declined to comment on the omission of the phrase "illegally occupied" during a press conference, saying, "I'd like to withhold comments on the statement adopted at the (latest) rally as the event was led by private organizations." But the government is one of the organizers of the rally, and it is hard to imagine that the statement does not incorporate the administration's thinking.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is eager to settle the territorial row and sign a peace treaty with Moscow during his tenure, is also refraining from using those expressions in public. During his speech at the Feb. 7 rally, the prime minister said, "I will have everyone's earnest wishes for the Northern Territories etched into my mind and steadily address the settlement of the territorial issue."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed that his country legally obtained the four islands as a result of World War II, clashing head-on with the Japanese government's traditional position that the four islands were illegally occupied. As Prime Minister Abe aspires to advance territorial and peace treaty talks with Russia, he apparently "avoided using language that could run squarely against the Russian government's position," noted an individual associated with the Japanese government.

Meanwhile, in the Hokkaido city of Nemuro close to the four islets, local residents took part in a similar rally involving five municipalities in the region on Feb. 7, "Northern Territories Day" in Japan. There again, rally-goers' headbands showed a subdued slogan, reading, "Conclude a peace treaty at an early date!" -- instead of the "Return the Northern Territories!" appeals seen in past rallies. At the conclusion of the event, participants waved small blue flags as a symbol of calls for the conclusion of a peace treaty, instead of the traditional style of raising their right fists while chanting. These arrangements were made to support the Abe administration's position.

Despite such a softer approach on Japan's end, it remains uncertain if Russia will relax its hard-line stance over the territorial dispute, including during bilateral foreign ministerial talks scheduled for mid-February.

"Japan has no choice but to maintain a modest attitude out of consideration for Russia, which may lose an unspecified number of islets it effectively controls as a result of the talks," said a person linked to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

--- Backers of full return frustrated; Gov't confident of 2-island option

At the rally in Tokyo, however, former residents of the four islands shared their mixed feelings over the Japanese government's low-profile attitude.

"The message calling for the return of the four islands has disappeared. Until a year ago, it was common to see the phrase 'return the four islands.' It's such a shame," said a former islander during their speech, delivered after Prime Minister Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Kono left the venue. The speech was hailed by a round of applause from the audience, who shared the sentiment against the prime minister's policy of promoting the return of two islands and joint economic activities on the remaining two islands -- the so-called "two-islands plus alpha" option.

At a gathering in Tokyo's Roppongi district on Dec. 3 last year, experts in favor of a full return of the four islands blasted the government's policy, saying it "poses a critical security problem."

A participant sounded a cautious note, saying, "Japan would be regarded as a country that can cede its sovereignty. Such a move could affect territorial rows with China and South Korea over the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture and Takeshima Island in Shimane Prefecture, respectively."

Nevertheless, aides to Prime Minister Abe are confident that the "two-island plus alpha" solution will gain public understanding, saying, "The people of Japan are aware that it is unrealistic to get the four islands back."

(Japanese original by Muneyoshi Mitsuda and Shu Furukawa, Political News Department, and Hiroaki Homma, Hokkaido News Department Nemuro)

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