Japan on Monday urged Russia to start this year's negotiations on a bilateral safe fishing agreement to prevent the Asian country's vessels from being seized by Moscow's authorities in waters near the disputed islands off Hokkaido.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a regular news conference that Russia notified Japan that it is unable to provide information on a suitable date for holding annual intergovernmental negotiations over the pact on Thursday. He described Russia's response as "unacceptable."

"We will firmly request Russia engages in intergovernmental talks so that our fishing operations can begin as soon as possible in 2023," said Matsuno, the top government spokesman.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno holds a press conference in Tokyo on Jan. 23, 2023. (Kyodo)

The agreement, which covers waters around the Moscow-controlled, Tokyo-claimed islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan, was concluded in 1998 following a series of incidents involving Japanese fishing vessels being seized and sometimes fired upon by Russian authorities.

The deal is designed to allow Japanese fishermen to catch several marine species such as Atka mackerel and octopus, among others, around the islets called the Southern Kurils in Russia, in exchange for the payment of "cooperation money" to Russian authorities. Catch and operating conditions are determined by annual negotiations.

In June 2022, Russia suspended the pact, citing Japan's freezing of payments for a development project in Sakhalin. The move came amid friction between the two nations after Japan joined U.S.-led sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

But fishing operations were resumed after Japan paid funds for the project to Russia in light of the benefits to Japanese fishermen.

Japan claims the Soviet Union illegally seized the islands soon after Japan's surrender in World War II on Aug. 15, 1945, while Moscow argues the act was legitimate.

The dispute over the islets has discouraged the two countries from signing a postwar peace treaty. Moscow has announced it would halt decades-old negotiations over the issue in the wake of Japan's punitive sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.

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