Japanese minister leaves for Russian-held disputed territory

The Cabinet minister in charge of the affairs of islands at the heart of a long-running territorial dispute between Japan and Russia left the northernmost main island of Hokkaido on Thursday to visit two of the Russian-held islands nearby under a bilateral visa-free program.

The five-day trip through Monday by Ichita Yamamoto marks the first visit to the disputed territory by a sitting Cabinet minister in eight years, and is aimed at stepping up Japan's efforts to tackle the issue as the leaders of the two countries have expressed their willingness to see bilateral talks make headway.

Yamamoto is scheduled to visit Kunashiri Island, the smaller of the two main islands in an islet group called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, on Friday, followed by a trip to Etorofu Island, the larger island, on Saturday and Sunday.

As the sixth sitting Cabinet minister ever to visit the territory following its seizure by the Soviet Union in 1945, Yamamoto is visiting the islands along with former Japanese residents under a visa-free program aimed at promoting exchanges with Russian islanders.

"I want to make use of my visit to get back the territory by imprinting the situation surrounding the Northern Territories and their scenery onto my five senses," Yamamoto said at a ceremony before leaving the port in Nemuro, Hokkaido.

While on Kunashiri and Etorofu, roughly 60 tour participants are expected to exchange views with local administrators, visit a fisheries-processing plant, interact with current residents and pay their respects to the deceased at graveyards.

The last sitting Cabinet minister to visit the islands was Yuriko Koike, who travelled there in July 2005 as minister in charge of the affairs of the disputed islands.

Japan and Russia have begun consultations on the dispute after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in April to resume stalled territorial talks. The dispute has prevented the nations from signing a post-World War II peace treaty.

Four islands off Hokkaido -- Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group -- were seized by the Soviet Union following Japan's surrender in World War II on Aug. 15, 1945.