MOSCOW (Kyodo) -- The Japanese and Russian foreign ministers met Friday in Moscow to negotiate a way through a long-standing territorial dispute that has prevented the countries from signing a postwar peace treaty.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono at the outset of the meeting that while major differences remain between their governments' stances, he was optimistic that their talks could help them find common ground.
The foreign ministers were expected to discuss plans to conduct joint economic activities on four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, a move intended by Tokyo to help build mutual trust ahead of more contentious discussions.
The islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, were seized by the Soviet Union following Japan's surrender in 1945. Tokyo asserts the seizure was illegal while Moscow maintains it was a legitimate outcome of the war.
Kono said that by resolving the issue and concluding a peace treaty, relations between the countries could enter a new stage.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had hoped to secure a broad agreement when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka. But with Russia appearing unwilling to budge on the islands, the talks are likely to drag on for some time.
Lavrov has suggested that in the meantime the countries enable visa-free travel between Sakhalin in the Russian Far East and Hokkaido. He may raise the issue again in the meeting with Kono.
Proposed joint economic activities on the islands -- Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group -- include aquaculture, greenhouse farming, tourism, wind power, and waste reduction programs.
Abe and Putin agreed to pursue the activities in December 2016 but none have been realized so far.
After Friday's meeting, Japanese Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Mori is slated to hold working-level discussions with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov.