VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Japanese tourists on Wednesday began a visit to two Russian-held island off Hokkaido involved in a bilateral territorial dispute as part of trust-building joint economic activities by the Japanese and Russian governments.
The five-day trial tour through Sunday by 44 people, including government officials, will take participants to sightseeing spots on Kunashiri and Etorofu, two out of a group of four islands disputed between the two countries. The islands are called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia.
Japanese tourism to the islands is set to be the pilot project of the joint economic activities on the islands, which Japan hopes will pave the way for resolving the longstanding territorial row.
With the current tour, the two sides aim to look at points to be improved before launching full-fledged sightseeing tours in the future.
“By clarifying problems, we hope to make it into a full-scale business in the future,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo.
“In order to resolve the territorial row and sign a peace treaty, we would like to steadily implement steps toward realizing the project,” he added.
The tour was initially scheduled to be held from Oct. 11 based on an agreement reached at a summit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June in Osaka, but was postponed following a last-minute request by Moscow for undisclosed reasons.
On Wednesday, the tour participants arrived on Kunashiri and visited a rock known as a scenic spot.
They are also scheduled to tour a museum and Russian Orthodox church on the island through Thursday, as well as a volcano and hot spring on Etorofu later in the week. Russian authorities, however, said the schedule could change depending on the weather.
As Japan and Russia have yet to agree on a new legal framework for allowing Japanese tourists and business operators to travel freely to the islands, a special arrangement was made to allow the visit under a visa-free program originally intended for former residents of the islands and experts.
The dispute over the islands, which also include Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, has long prevented the two countries from signing a postwar peace treaty.
Japan has maintained that the islands were illegally seized by Russia following Tokyo’s surrender in World War II on Aug. 15, 1945. Moscow sees the seizure as a legitimate outcome of the war.