Japan and Russia are exploring ways to resolve a 60-year row over a string of islands, possibly by splitting their total area rather than dividing their number evenly between the two countries, a news report said Wednesday.
A Russian Foreign Ministry official identified only as Denisof raised the possibility at a meeting with Akihiro Ota, leader of the junior party in Japan's ruling coalition, on Nov. 23 in Moscow, according to a report carried by the daily Mainichi Shimbun.
But Denisof's remarks about the four-island chain, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Kuril islands in Russia, during a casual conversation about examples of how other countries solved territorial disputes, and did not yet amount to a formal Russian proposal, the paper said, citing unnamed officials.
The islands were held by Tokyo but seized by Moscow in the closing days of World War II. The dispute blocked the signing of a formal peace treaty between them.
Tokyo has constantly demanded that Moscow cede all four islands, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds. In 1956 it rejected a Russian proposal that would return two smaller islands to Japan, while Russia keeps two larger ones closer to its territory.
Tensions between the countries flared in August when Russian patrol boats fatally shot a Japanese fisherman and seized a vessel in the disputed northern waters. Leaders from both sides have since called for territorial negotiations to be accelerated so a peace treaty can be signed.
Last month, Foreign Minister Taro Aso told parliament that Japan could consider the idea of splitting the islands by total area. Such a division would give Japan three of the islands and a quarter of the largest, northernmost island, Etorofu, he said, but later denied Japan officially pushed that solution, reports AP.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov quickly criticized Aso's remarks, calling his mixed messages counterproductive.