The Kremlin has denounced a claim by Japan’s new prime minister that Japan’s sovereignty extends to a chain of islands disputed by Tokyo and Moscow.
While Moscow regards the archipelago that separates the Sea of Okhotsk and Pacific Ocean as its own, Tokyo says its four southernmost islands belong to Japan.
The disputed islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai lie at their closest point just a few kilometres off the north coast of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands.
Addressing Japan’s Parliament on Tuesday, PM Fumio Kishida laid claim to the four, which are known by Tokyo as the Northern Territories.
“Our country’s sovereignty covers the Northern Territories,” Russia’s Tass news agency quoted Kishida as saying.
“We must solve this issue and not leave it to future generations. The government intends to sign a peace treaty with Russia, resolving the issue of these islands’ sovereignty,” Kishida said.
His remarks drew swift censure from Moscow.
“We do not agree with such a statement,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call later on Tuesday.
Known as the Kurils in Russia, Peskov said the archipelago is “Russian territory”.
“Russia has repeatedly reaffirmed its political will on different levels to continue dialogue with Japan to find solutions to the sensitive issues that remain on the agenda,” he said.
The territorial dispute dates back to when the Soviet Union seized the islands at the end of World War II.
The disagreement has prevented Russia and Japan from ever signing a formal peace treaty, despite repeated attempts over the past 70 years to reach an accord.
The four disputed islands are located to the southeast of the Russian island of Sakhalin and are administratively part of the same region.
Strategically, control of the islands ensures Russia has year-round access to the Pacific Ocean for its Pacific Fleet of warships and submarines based in Vladivostok, as the strait between Kunashir and Iturup does not freeze over in winter.
Russia has military bases on the archipelago and has deployed missile systems on the islands.
The islands’ current population is about 20,000 people.
Since 2017, Japan and Russia have agreed on charter flights for Japanese former inhabitants to visit family graves there.
The islands are rich in hot springs and minerals and rare metals such as rhenium, which is used in the production of supersonic aircraft.