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International relations

Abe strikes distinctly softer tone on northern island dispute

Shift in language at annual rally aims to tame Russian sensitivities

Japan hopes to reach a deal with Russia on the handover of at least two of the four southernmost Kuril Islands. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe trod more carefully than usual in an annual speech on a territorial dispute with Russia, apparently seeking to avoid antagonizing Moscow as the two sides pursue a long-awaited postwar peace treaty.

The address on Thursday steered clear of potentially inflammatory language used in the past, such as "the attribution of the four northern islands" -- a Japanese term for the southernmost Kuril Islands, which are administered by Russia and claimed by Japan. Abe spoke at a government-backed national rally held in partnership with municipalities and private organizations.

The statement adopted at the event, held on the date designated as Northern Territories Day in Japan, was similarly muted compared with past years. It avoided calling the islands "illegally occupied" or saying that "we absolutely cannot allow a resolution to be delayed any longer."

Tokyo seems keen to avoid derailing recent progress on the issue. Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached an accord last year to accelerate talks based on a 1956 joint declaration in which the Soviet Union agreed to hand over two of the disputed islands once a peace treaty was signed.

But the matter remains highly sensitive, particularly in Russia, where there is fierce opposition to negotiating the islands' status.

The rally urged action toward "resolving the Northern Territories problem" rather than "the speedy return of the four northern islands." Abe similarly rephrased Japan's basic policy on the dispute as "resolving the territorial issue and concluding a peace treaty with Russia," removing the controversial "attribution" and "four northern islands" phrases.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who also spoke at the rally, refrained from referring to the disputed islands as an "inherent" part of Japan's territory. The term had been included in foreign ministers' speeches each year since Kono's predecessor Fumio Kishida used it in 2015.

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