TOKYO — Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe headed to Russia on Friday in a show of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Olympics, just hours after headlining a rally demanding that Moscow return islands seized from Japan.
Abe’s trip to attend the Games and hold his fifth summit with Putin since taking office 13 months ago, despite the seven-decade territorial dispute, stands in marked contrast to Japan’s sharply deteriorating ties with China and South Korea, involving spats over tiny uninhabited islands.
For Putin, the appearance of G7 leader Abe at Friday’s opening ceremony provides a high-profile seal of approval. The Russian leader faces global criticism over the country’s human rights record and a recent law against gay “propaganda,” which opponents say curtails the rights of homosexuals.
U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German President Joachim Gauck are not attending the Games.
Russia’s domestic policies have not provoked controversy in Japan, but the territorial dispute forms the backdrop to Abe’s trip. He left after addressing an annual “Northern Terriroties Day” gathering, meant to pressure Russia to return the islands, which Russia says comprise the southern end of its Kurile chain.
“While developing Japan-Russia ties as a whole, we have to finally solve the biggest so-far unresolved issue, that is the Northern Territories issue, and to sign the peace treaty with Russia.
That is why I will engage in tenacious negotiations with Russia.”
Also attending were ministers, lawmakers and representatives of political parties, as well as former island residents.
Moscow took the islands east of Hokkaido days before Japan surrendered in World War II, forcing 17,000 Japanese to leave. The dispute has kept the two countries from signing a peace treaty.
Abe and Putin — said to be on a first-name basis — have not let the dispute block progress in diplomacy centering on natural gas and other resources.
By contrast, the leaders of China and South Korea have rebuffed Abe’s repeated calls to meet. Beside the isle spats, Abe angered Beijing and Seoul with a Decembr pilgrimage to a shirine they see as a symbol of Tokyo’s past militarism.
Russia also criticized the shrine visit, but did not let it derail ties with Japan.
Abe has made ties with Russia a priority, starting with a Moscow summit. Talks are set to continue this year, although neither side expects a swift end to the dispute.