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46% of Japanese favor initial return of 2 islands from Russia

Abe-Putin agreement on peace treaty gains wide support, Nikkei poll finds

Shikotan forms part of the four southern Kuril Islands that Japan calls the Northern Territories. The Japanese government is exploring the idea of seeking to win back just two -- Shikotan and Habomai -- from Russia as a start.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Nearly half the Japanese public supports the idea of seeking an initial return of two islands in a decades-long territorial dispute with Russia rather than pushing to regain all four at once, the latest Nikkei/TV Tokyo survey finds.

The Northern Territories, Japan's name for the southern Kuril Islands, are administered by Russia but claimed by Tokyo. The dispute has kept the two countries from signing a treaty formally ending World War II hostilities.

An initial return of two islands garnered 46% support in the survey, conducted from Friday through Sunday. Thirty-three percent wanted all four returned together, while 5% were satisfied with getting just two islands back. The poll sought opinions on the best way to resolve the Northern Territories issue.

At their Nov. 14 meeting in Singapore, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to accelerate negotiations toward a peace treaty based on a 1956 joint declaration by Japan and the old Soviet Union. The declaration stipulates that after the conclusion of a peace treaty, two of the disputed territories will be transferred to Japan: the Habomai islets, often counted as a single island for convenience, and the island of Shikotan.

Abe is thought to be pursuing the return of two islands as a start instead of all four at the same time.

Those backing Abe's Liberal Democratic Party are more open to regaining two islands first. Among LDP supporters, 55% preferred that approach, while 28% wanted all four returned at the same time. Those with no party affiliation appeared evenly divided, splitting 37% to 36% in favor of receiving two islands initially.

By age groups, only about 30% of those in their 20s and 30s wanted all four islands returned simultaneously, but the figure rose to 37% for those 70 or older.

Support for an initial return of two islands stood at 51% among men and 39% among women.

Overall support for this strategy appeared even stronger in a November 2016 survey, which found that 29% favored talks toward regaining all four islands while 60% of respondents backed negotiations resulting in a partial return.

The latest survey also found that 67% favored the agreement between Abe and Putin to press ahead with peace treaty talks. The figure jumps to 81% among LDP supporters but falls to 56% among those without party affiliation.

Younger respondents offered a stronger level of support for the treaty talks. More than 70% of those in their 20s to 50s approved, but the figure slipped to 67% for 60-somethings and 51% for those 70 and up.

However, 45% said that no peace treaty should be signed before the territorial dispute is settled, while 43% supported signing a treaty without that condition. Among those seeking the return of all four islands at once, 56% said that such a treaty should not be signed.

Putin said in September that a peace treaty should be signed this year without conditions. A survey conducted that month found that 19% wanted a peace treaty signed by year-end before tackling the territorial dispute, while 66% said the territorial issue should be resolved first.

Abe and Putin are expected to talk at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina starting Friday, and the prime minister is poised to visit Russia in January.

Abe's cabinet held the support of 51% of respondents in the latest poll, up from 48% in last month's survey, while those disapproving fell 4 percentage points to 38%.

Men who supported the cabinet rose to 55% from 48% while approval from women declined 4 points to 45%. Among LDP supporters, the cabinet approval rating jumped 9 points to 93%.

Forty percent of supporters cited the cabinet's stability as a reason for their approval, while 35% gave high marks to the cabinet's global perspective. The survey allowed multiple responses. Among those who disapprove, 48% said that Abe cannot be trusted.

The survey also asked which policies should be a priority for Abe, with multiple responses allowed. Strengthening social security led the way at 48%, while 41% called for an economic recovery. Just 11% wanted a constitutional amendment, a long-sought goal of the prime minister.

The Japanese public remains evenly divided on the plan to increase the consumption tax rate to 10% in October 2019. Respondents were opposed 47% to 46% in the latest survey, after a 47%-to-46% split in favor in last month's poll.

Support for political parties also changed little from the October survey. The LDP received backing from 40% of respondents, while 38% said they supported no specific party. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan drew favor from 9%, while 4% mentioned the LDP's junior coalition partner, Komeito.

The public was colder toward the government's plan to accept up to 345,000 foreign workers over five years starting in April, with 41% in favor but 47% opposed to the proposal designed to combat Japan's severe labor shortage. This result contrasts with the October survey -- which offered no specific numbers but simply asked about expanding the ranks of foreign workers -- when 54% were in favor and 37% were against.

Yet in the new survey, 48% backed granting permanent residency to those workers, versus 40% against. LDP supporters opposed the idea, 47% to 44%.

The poll was carried out by Nikkei Research through random-digit dialing, receiving 996 responses from those 18 and older, for a response rate of 45.3%.

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