Japan's new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday and they agreed to advance negotiations for a postwar peace treaty between their countries.
In pursuit of that goal, Kishida later told reporters Japan will first seek to settle the issue of the status of four islands lying to the northeast of Hokkaido, now controlled by Russia.
During the 25-minute conversation with Putin, Kishida said he expressed his desire to develop Japan-Russia relations in a mutually beneficial manner and the president responded he wants to continue dialogue on a range of bilateral issues.
Japan and Russia have a decades-old territorial dispute concerning the sovereignty of the four islands, which were seized by the Soviet Union following Tokyo's surrender in 1945. The disagreement has prevented them from signing a peace treaty since the end of World War II.
Japan, which calls the islands the Northern Territories, argues the annexation was illegal and is demanding their return, while Russia says it was a legitimate outcome of the war. The islands are known as the Southern Kurils in Russia.
In their first conversation since Kishida took office this week, the leaders agreed to move forward with negotiations based on past agreements including a 1956 joint declaration that states two of the four islands -- Shikotan and the Habomai islet group -- will be handed over to Japan following the conclusion of a peace treaty.
Asked about the key declaration, Kishida told the press Japan's policy remains unchanged that it will "clarify the attribution issue of the four islands and conclude a peace treaty."
Kishida added he congratulated Putin on his birthday, which fell on Thursday.
Putin also expressed his hope to hold talks with Kishida in person as soon as possible, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Mentioning that Kishida is a former foreign minister, Putin was quoted by a ministry official as saying, "I am looking forward to working with Prime Minister Kishida, who knows bilateral relations well."
The leaders also discussed North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs, and Kishida asked for Russia's help in resolving the issue of the North's abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, the ministry said.
The phone call with Putin was Kishida's third with a foreign leader since he took office. On Tuesday, a day after the launch of his Cabinet, the Japanese leader spoke by phone with U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.