Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday hailed a potential breakthrough in a decades-long territorial dispute with Russia, after talks with President Vladimir Putin, Japan's foreign ministry spokesman told AFP.
"The prime minister said that today he could feel a breakthrough, he could make a breakthrough in the currently stagnated negotiation," Japanese foreign ministry press secretary Yasuhisa Kawamura said.
Tokyo-Moscow relations are hamstrung by a row dating back to the end of World War II when Soviet troops seized the four southernmost islands in the Pacific Kuril chain, known as the Northern Territories in Japan.
Japan and Russia's lingering tensions have prevented them ever signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities, hindering trade and investment ties.
Abe, in a rare visit by a G7 leader to Russia, met Putin for talks at his holiday residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with their talks focusing on the dispute.
"The prime minister said that Mr Putin also shared ... the same feeling" and the leaders "agreed today that they themselves directly get involved in the negotiation," Kawamura said.
Putin and Abe agreed to "promote negotiations by employing a new approach without being bothered by the old previous thinking," Kawamura said.
"This is literally a new element," he said, without giving more detail.
"Japan is not just our neighbour, it is a very important partner for us in the Asian-Pacific region," Putin told Abe at the start of the meeting.
"We have certain questions that demand special attention, maybe for this reason we must devote special attention to building relationships," the Russian leader added.
- Symbol of warming ties -
The Kremlin had dismissed hopes of any major breakthrough towards resolving the dispute at Friday's meeting, while playing up Abe's visit as a symbol of warming ties despite Western attempts to isolate Putin.
The leaders held talks lasting more than three hours, including a tete-a-tete section, in what Abe called "an extensive, frank and candid exchange of views," Kawamura said.
Both sides had earlier mooted the possibility of starting negotiations on signing a peace treaty, with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida saying in April that they could begin "as soon as possible" after the leaders met.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said briefly after the talks Friday that the sides "discussed the problem of the peace treaty," giving few details but announcing another round of foreign ministry consultations in June.
While in Tokyo last month, Lavrov said Russia wants to "move forward" but is not prepared to budge on the "result of World War II".
Russia has angered Japan recently by building new modern compounds for its troops stationed on two of the disputed islands.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also infuriated Tokyo last year by visiting one of the islands, home to some 19,000 Russians.
The two leaders on Friday discussed a long-planned visit by Putin to Japan this year, but did not announce a date.
"we agreed in principle that Mr Putin will visit Japan. We will continue to discuss this," Kawamura said.
- Lingering tensions -
Despite the warmer words from both sides, tensions between the two sides continue to surface and Japan has hit Russia with sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.
Though the situation in Ukraine was raised, Lavrov said Putin and Abe did not discuss a potential lifting of sanctions by Tokyo, imposed over Russia's support for separatists there.
Putin said last month he welcomed Abe's visit as it comes despite "pressure from (Japan's) partners, particularly the United States".
Abe will later this month host a summit of the Group of Seven advanced industrial countries, from which Russia has been excluded over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
"Evidently Japan will try to act as a kind of middleman in the talks process between Russia and the US," Russia's government newspaper the Rossiiskaya Gazeta said Thursday.
US President Barack Obama reportedly asked Abe in February to postpone his trip to Russia, according to sources quoted by Japan's Kyodo news agency.
Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Kawamura insisted Friday that Abe's visit "has been well explained to the United States side."