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Japanese tour to disputed islets put off at Russia's request

This photo taken on Jan. 30, 2019, from a Kyodo News airplane shows Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands off Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido. Seen in the center is Kunashiri. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A trial tour by Japanese visitors of Russian-held islands off Hokkaido at the heart of a bilateral territorial dispute has been put off following a last-minute request by Moscow, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

The six-day tour by some 50 people from Friday was part of Japan-Russia joint economic activities on the disputed islands designed to build mutual trust and pave the way for resolving the longstanding territorial row.

Russia told Japan on Tuesday that it wanted to reschedule the tour, according to the Japanese ministry. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Akihiro Nishimura declined to disclose further details at a press conference Wednesday, including why the visit was put off.

Despite the postponement, Japan will seek to set a new date for the tour "as soon as possible," Nishimura said.

According to the initial schedule, about 50 Japanese people, including government officials, were to visit Kunashiri and Etorofu -- two of the four disputed islands -- from Friday to Oct. 16 under a visa-free program. They were to visit several sightseeing spots, including a volcano, a Russian Orthodox church and a hot spring.

"We are eager to continue to promote joint economic activities and peace treaty negotiations," Nishimura said.

The dispute over the four islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, has long prevented the signing of a postwar peace treaty.

Japan has maintained that the islands, which also include Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, were illegally seized by Russia following Tokyo's surrender in World War II on Aug. 15, 1945. Moscow, however, sees the seizure as a legitimate outcome of the war.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed last November to step up talks toward concluding a post-WWII peace treaty. But hopes for tangible progress have waned since then due to a deep divide over the territorial issue.

During a summit in June on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Abe and Putin agreed to realize the trial tour this fall. In addition to tourism, waste reduction and greenhouse farming are also among joint economic projects.

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