TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reaffirmed his intent to reach a postwar peace treaty between Tokyo and Moscow based on a 1956 declaration as he held his first conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
A peace deal has been blocked by the Northern Territories issue, a group of Japanese islands off Hokkaido which were occupied by Russia at the end of World War II and are still administered by Moscow.
"I want to advance Japan-Russia relations as a whole, which includes concluding a peace treaty," Suga told Putin over the 20-minute telephone call. "I intend to close the books on the Northern Territories issue rather than postpone it to the next generation."
Suga's predecessor as prime minister, Shinzo Abe, reached an agreement with Putin in 2018 to speed negotiations toward a World War II peace treaty based on a 1956 joint declaration by Japan and the Soviet Union.
The declaration stipulates that the Russian side will hand over two of the four islands to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty.
Suga and Putin on Tuesday reaffirmed the 2018 agreement. Putin said he "highly values" his relationship with Abe, according to the Japanese side. The Russian leader also said he is prepared to work constructively with Suga on bilateral and international issues.
Putin touched on the "visa-free exchange" in which former Japanese residents of the islands would visit the territories while Russian residents of the islands would visit Japan. The program has been halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Russian leader said he was prepared to reopen the visa-free exchange when the pandemic is brought under control.
Suga and Putin agreed to seek a face-to-face meeting at an early date.
"I will be able to have a frank exchange of views with Mr. Putin going forward. That was the response I felt," Suga told reporters after the phone meeting.
For over 70 years, Tokyo and Moscow have failed to demarcate a border because of the Northern Territories issue. The 1956 joint declaration states that Habomai and Shikotan islands would be handed over to Japan after a peace accord is signed.
As Abe's former chief cabinet secretary, Suga will follow his predecessor's line toward Russia.
"Our aim of resolving the Northern Territories issue, then signing a peace treaty, remains unchanged," said Katsunobu Kato, Suga's chief cabinet secretary.
Suga retained the diplomatic team that Abe assembled to deal with Russia. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi will continue to handle the negotiations, along with top career diplomats Takeo Akiba and Takeo Mori.
Shigeru Kitamura, the Japanese national security adviser, also has been retained. Kitamura visited Russia in January to meet with Putin and Nikolai Patrushev, the country's Security Council secretary.
Abe's resignation leaves a large gap to fill, given his strong personal connection with Putin. The two held 27 meetings over the years. Suga, who has yet to meet with Putin in person, faces the task of forming his own ties with the Russian leader.
Meanwhile, Suga has shaken up the staff at the prime minister's office, whose policymaking had been been heavily influenced by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Suga replaced Abe advisers Takaya Imai and Eiichi Hasegawa, both of whom hailed from METI and were involved in Russia negotiations and economic cooperation.
Suga faces no immediate prospects of a breakthrough on the Northern Territories issue. Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014 worsened relations with Washington, and Moscow has aired concerns that the U.S. may build military bases in the Northern Territories if the islands are transferred to Japan.
"Friction between the U.S. and Russia is a major factor in why there has been no progress on the territorial issue since the Japan-Russia summit in November 2018," said Nobuo Shimotomai, professor emeritus of Russian politics at Hosei University.
Russia this year enacted constitutional amendments that include a ban on giving away any part of the country's territory, a development that could hamper bilateral talks over the islands.
Prior to the phone call with Putin, Suga met with Muneo Suzuki, a Hokkaido lawmaker in the upper house of Japan's parliament who has connections to Russia. The two discussed the situation with Russia as well as diplomacy with the country.