Japan eager to resume dispute over northern islands with Russia

Japan's prime minister pledged Tuesday to regain four disputed northern islands from Russia, saying it was time to end the bickering between Tokyo and Moscow over the prime fishing grounds.

"The territorial issue is a matter of national concern, and it is important for each person to be interested in the problem to mobilize efforts," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at an annual rally to garner support for the islands' return.

"Progress in Japan-Russia relations has a big potential to benefit both countries. It is crucial to make persistent effort to resolve the dispute over the Northern Territories, which is the long-pending problem," Abe said.

Russia seized the four-island chain, called the southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, from Tokyo in the closing days of World War II. The dispute has kept the two countries from signing a formal peace treaty, the AP reports.

Wednesday was Japan's Northern Territory Day, marking the anniversary of an 1855 Japan-Russia friendship treaty that gave Japan possession of the islands.

The islands, surrounded by prime fishing waters, are part of a chain running from Japan's northern main island of Hokkaido to Russia's eastern Kamchatka Peninsula.

There have been frequent seizures of Japanese boats in recent months; Russian authorities have stepped up patrols in and around the disputed territory, escalating tensions.

About 17,000 people, nearly all Russians, live on the islands. Thousands of Japanese who lived there were forced out just before the end of World War II.

Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed last November to expand economic and political exchanges and end differences over the islands.