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This year’s first Japanese group embarks on visa-free trip to southern Kuril islands

Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that about 60 people will stay on Kunashir Island until May 13

TOKYO, May 10. /TASS/. A group of Japanese citizens - the first in 2019 - has embarked on a visa-free trip to Kunashir Island, part of the southern Kuril Islands, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported. The group, travelling by the Etopirika vessel, departed from the city of Nemuro on Hokkaido's east coast.

The group of about 60 people will stay on Kunashir Island until May 13. The Japanese will visit their family graves and meet with locals.

The parties agreed on the 2019 visa-free travel program in early March. According to the program, the former Japanese residents of the southern Kuril Islands and persons accompanying them will make nine visits to the islands, while the islands’ Russian residents will visit Japan six times. These visa-free trips will take place from May and September. According to Kyodo, the program will involve about 520 Japanese nationals.

Southern Kuril Islands issue and visa-free travels

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 cannot 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. Japanese citizens qualifying for visa-free trips include former residents of the Kuril Islands, their family members, researchers, members of public organizations and reporters. Over this period, more than 8,000 Russians living on Iturup, Kunashir and Shikotan have travelled to Japan, while over 18,000 Japanese nationals have visited the southern Kuril islands.