Speaking at the opening of the parliamentary session on Monday, Suga said the over half-a-century-long diplomatic tensions over the Kuril Islands, “should not be passed on to future generations.” The prime minister added that “there should now be a final resolution to it… We will move forward on the basis of previous agreements between the two countries.” Later on that day, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov used an annual press conference to welcome future talks with “our Japanese friends” and emphasized the strength of their relationship.

Japan has previously claimed sovereignty over the four southernmost islands of the archipelago, located in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of the Russian Far East. Historically inhabited by the Ainu people, Moscow insists the islands were handed over to the Soviet Union as part of the 1945 Yalta agreement, in exchange for its part in defeating Imperial Japan in World War Two. The islands have been administered by Russia since then.

However, Tokyo has in the past refused to accept that the Yalta deal included the southern atolls, which it refers to as its ‘Northern Territories,’ including two of the three largest islands. The dispute has hampered the signing of a post-WWII peace agreement between Russia and Japan, meaning that the two countries are technically still in a state of war.

In December, Japanese media reported with surprise that, for the purposes of drawing up Green Cards and other immigration documents, the US State Department considers Russians born on the islands to be Japanese citizens. Many are ethnic Russians. At the time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow hit out at Washington’s decision, asking then: “do you need more proof that the US is a revisionist power?” A spokesperson added that “in 1945, the Kuril Islands were transferred to the USSR. But today the [American] State Department is seeking to reopen the settlement of the Second World War and encouraging territorial revanchism.”

Days after first taking office in September, Suga used a telephone call with President Vladimir Putin to put the issue of the Kurils on the agenda for bilateral talks. While the new prime minister has said he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who was one of Washington’s closest allies, there has been speculation that he is more open to stronger ties with Japan’s neighbor.

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