Japanese tourists on Wednesday visited Russian-held islands off Hokkaido at the heart of 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. They are among four islands disputed between the two countries, 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.
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 it was postponed following a last-minute request by Moscow for undisclosed reasons.
The tour participants visited a sightseeing spot on Kunashiri on Wednesday. They are also scheduled to tour a museum and a Russian Orthodox church on the island through Thursday as well as a volcano and a hot spring on Etorofu later in the week, but Russian authorities said the schedule could be subject to change due to 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 their 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.