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TOKYO, August 30. /TASS/. A group of former residents of the South Kuril Islands has set off on a visa-free trip to Russia in order to visit the graves of their family members on the Yuri and Zeleny islands, a source in Japan’s Hokkaido administration told TASS on Wednesday.
The group of 57 people is expected to return to Japan on September 1. The group is travelling by the Etopirika boat allocated for visa-free trips. Before the ship’s departure from Hokkaido’s Nemuro port, Japanese Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs Tetsuma Esaki held a meeting with the group.
In the past, former residents of the islands travelling in accordance with the visa-free program underwent entry procedures at sea near the Kunashir Island’s port of Yuzhno-Kurilsk. Only after the procedures were completed, they had a chance to travel to other islands which prolonged their trip for about six hours.
However, on April 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reached an agreement on introducing a visa-free flight from Japan to the South Kuril Islands and launching a new checkpoint. Russia’s Aurora air company was expected to conduct the first flight in June but the flight had to be cancelled due to bad weather conditions. According to the Japanese media, a new date has been set for September 23.
Since the mid-20th century, Russia and Japan have been holding consultations in order to clinch a peace treaty as a follow-up to World War II.
The Kuril Islands issue remains the sticking point since after WWII the islands were handed over to the Soviet Union while Japan has laid claims to the four southern islands. In 1956, the two countries signed a common declaration on ending the state of war and restoring diplomatic and all other relations, however, a peace treaty has still not been reached. Moscow has stated many times that Russia’s sovereignty over the islands could not be questioned.
Visa-free travels between Russia’s South Kuril Islands and Japan began in 1992 in accordance with an intergovernmental agreement aimed to improve mutual understanding between the two countries’ people.