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Saturday, April 18, 1998 Published at 18:34 GMT 19:34 UK


Russia and Japan's island row

Japan's Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russia's President Boris Yeltsin are due to meet in Japan this weekend.

The two countries are officially at war because of a dispute over who owns four islands off the northern coast of Japan know as the South Kurile islands.

[ image: Juliet Hindell in Japan]
Juliet Hindell in Japan
The row has prevented them from signing a peace treaty.

The two leaders have pledged to sign a treaty by the year 2000.

The BBC's Juliet Hindell reports on how the Japanese view the dispute:

On a clear day the Russian island of Kunashir is clearly visible from the coast of Japan. But the two countries are miles apart on who owns the northern territories.

"They're out there somewhere and the Japanese want them back"
Masaki Banjou is a Japanese fisherman who lives with the stand-off every day.

He can fish within sight of the islands, but if he gets too close Russian patrol boats turn him away. Recently, one boat was shot at by Russian fishermen.

[ image: The island of Kunashir is visible from Hokkaido, Japan]
The island of Kunashir is visible from Hokkaido, Japan
"I want Russia to return the northern territories but I don't believe they will be returned in my lifetime," said Mr Banjou.

It took the former Soviet Union just two weeks to take the islands - barely 4km from the Japanese mainland - during World War II. Russia and Japan are officially still at war over those very same islands.

Every day Russians unload the fish they've caught in the rich fishing grounds near the disputed islands. They sell it to the lucrative Japanese market.

[ image: Japan's fishermen cannot fish in disputed waters]
Japan's fishermen cannot fish in disputed waters
Russians can now come to Japan via the port of Nemuro without visas.

They are also making their mark on the small port. They spend their earnings in shops and bars which cater specially to their needs.

But just up the coast is a memorial to the four disputed islands. It's a reminder that more than 17,000 people in the area used to live there.

Fifty years after they were evacuated, they still want the islands back.

A sign written in Japanese and Russian above Nemuro's the town hall declares that the northern territories are part of Japan. Many here believe the legal argument is clear.

"According to the treaties the northern territories belong to Japan. History shows no foreigners lived there in the past - only Japanese," said the mayor of Nemuro.

The future of the islands could be decided in the next two years. The summit may offer some clues as to how Russia and Japan can overcome their differences.

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