Russia's President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Japan for a two-day summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, marking his first visit there in 11 years. Both sides hope to make progress over the disputed Kuril Islands.
The high-level visit had been set up despite the fact that Japan, like other G-7 countries, continues to maintain sanctions against Russia.
Putin met with Abe at a mountainside resort in the southwestern city of Nagato on Thursday, having landed in Japan almost three hours later than scheduled. The reasons for the delay were not immediately made clear. The meeting place itself carried a great deal of symbolic significance, as the city of Nagato is Abe's ancestral hometown as well as his home constituency.
"Thanks to your efforts, we can see a distinctive shift in the development of Russian-Japanese ties." Putin remarked during his meeting with Abe on Thursday.
The main topic of the talks was likely the long-running dispute over the Kuril Islands. The four islands, which Tokyo considers its northern territories, were claimed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. The dispute has prevented the two countries from ever formally declaring an end to hostilities.
Decades ago, Moscow offered to give back the two smaller islands to Japan and keep the remaining two. Tokyo did not accept that offer, however, Abe's government recently launched a plan to invest in the easternmost regions of Russia with the hope of expanding its diplomatic influence on Russia to help resolve the issue in the future. Observers from both sides believe a final deal is still years away.
The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine were also on the agenda, according to officials.
Japanese Prime Minister Abe has visited Russia on several occasions since taking office in 2012. Putin, however, last traveled to Japan 11 years ago. In honor of the rare visit, local schools in Nagato reportedly served borsch and pirogi on Thursday.
Abe meanwhile also invited the Russian president to try the local hot springs in Nagato.
"When you take a bath in the springs, all the fatigue just goes away," he told the Russian president.
"As interesting as that sounds, it's better not to get too tired," Putin retorted.
The two leaders are set to travel to Tokyo tomorrow.
dj/ss (AP, Reuters, AFP, Interfax)