Putin, Abe Hold Talks on Land Dispute

Putin, Abe Hold Talks on Land Dispute

NAGATO, Japan (AP) -- The leaders of Russia and Japan held talks at a hot springs resort in western Japan on Thursday on a territorial dispute that has divided their countries for 70 years.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the summit meeting in Nagato city marks his first official visit to a G-7 country since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe invited Putin even though the G-7 nations, including Japan, still have sanctions on Russia. The meetings will move to Tokyo on Friday.

Abe hopes to make progress on the territorial dispute and bolster ties through joint economic projects. A major breakthrough is seen as unlikely.

In brief remarks before the meeting, Abe told Putin that the hot spring waters of Nagato are famous for relieving fatigue.

"I can guarantee you that the hot springs here would fully remove fatigue from our summit talks," he said.

Putin replied, "Better not to get too tired." He also credited Abe's efforts for "a certain movement in the development of Russian-Japanese ties."

James Brown, a Japan-Russia expert at Temple University's Japan campus in Tokyo, said the meeting was "an extraordinary development. I think Prime Minister Abe is being really quite bold in announcing this new approach to relations with Russia, especially coming at such a difficult time in relations between Russia and the West."

The meeting started after 6 p.m, more than two hours behind schedule, because Putin's plane landed late. Putin has a reputation for late arrivals. He kept Pope Francis waiting at the Vatican for one hour and 20 minutes in 2015. Earlier this month, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida waited for two hours when he visited the Kremlin.

Abe, who flew from Tokyo to Nagato in the morning, used the time to visit the grave of his father, Shintaro Abe. As foreign minister, the elder Abe strove for a resolution of the territorial dispute in the 1980s.

Disagreement over four southern Kuril islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, have kept the countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending their World War II hostilities.

Japan says the Soviet Union took the islands illegally at the end of World War II, expelling 17,000 Japanese to nearby Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands. Russia governs the islands and the Russians who now live there.

"I hope to negotiate thoroughly in a quiet atmosphere, in the silence of the night," Abe told reporters ahead of his departure for Nagato. "I head into negotiations keeping close to my heart the long-cherished desire of the former islanders" to resolve the dispute.

Putin told Japanese journalists earlier this week that progress hinges on Japan's flexibility to compromise, and that he doesn't mind the status quo. "We think that we have no territorial problems. It's Japan that thinks that is has a territorial problem with Russia," he said.

But Russia wants to attract Japanese investment, particularly to its far east. Japan hopes that stronger ties through joint economic projects will help resolve the thorny territorial issue over time.