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First Japanese tour group visits disputed Russia islands


AFP Moscow
Japanese tourists have for the first time visited an island chain that is disputed with Russia and has prevented the two nations from signing a WWII peace treaty, according to Russian television reports aired Thursday.
The Soviet Union seized the strategically located volcanic archipelago north of Japan's Hokkaido in the final days of World War II, and has maintained a military presence there ever since. President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have met many times to try to find a way out of the impasse, most recently in September.
The pair have discussed joint economic activity in the region and Russia's tourism agency said this year it was hoping to attract Japanese tourists to the islands.
The group of 44 people arrived Wednesday for a four-day visit, including trips to a Japanese cemetery and a local history museum, Russian regional authorities said.
The group, many of them elderly, were set to see two of the four islands in the Sea of Japan, which Russia calls the southern Kuril islands and Tokyo says is its Northern Territories.
One Japanese woman told Mir 24 television she had come "to see the places where my fellow citizens once lived and to touch the ground." Some Japanese people have visited the islands to see their ancestors' graves since the Soviet capture but there been no organised tourism.
The group bought the tours in Hokkaido and arrived by ship, with each paying around USD 3,000 ( 2,700 euros), Russian television said.
A tour guide at a local history museum was shown on television telling the group that "Kunashir island is part of (Russia's) Sakhalin region." An elderly man named as Mamoru Takahashi told TV Zvezda he was impressed by the number of Japanese exhibits such as porcelain in the museum and "many of them made me feel nostalgic."

Japanese officials told Kyodo news agency earlier they were hoping the visit would contribute to greater cooperation across the islands.
Russia's tourism agency said in August it hopes Japanese visitors to the Kurils will reach 200,000 per year by 2023.

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First Published: Oct 31 2019 | 8:20 PM IST

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