Tokyo: Japan`s Prime Minister Naoto Kan led a large rally on Monday demanding the return of several islands held by Russia since the end of World War II and calling the recent visit there by Russia`s president an outrage.
The dispute over the southern Kuril islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories, has long been a sticking point in relations between the two countries and has kept them from signing a formal peace treaty ending their World War II hostilities.
Japan has designated February 07 as "Northern Territories Day”, saying that a treaty dating back to that day in 1855 supports its claim to the islands.
Kan was the top speaker at a government-backed rally of about 1,500 people in Tokyo that has been held annually since 1981 to mark the anniversary. He vowed that Japan will not back down from its claim and said visits there by Russian leaders are "an unforgivable outrage”.
A smaller rally and march were held on the northern island of Hokkaido.
Russia`s position on its own claim appears to be getting more assertive in recent months.
President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit the islands when he toured them in November. Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov inspected military garrisons on the islands last week and said Moscow is planning to upgrade the troops` weapons there.
Both trips generated sharp protests from Tokyo, which claims Soviet Army occupation of the territory just before Japan`s surrender in 1945 was an act of illegal aggression.
The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are believed to have offshore oil and natural gas reserves, plus gold and silver deposits. They lie as close as six miles (10 kilometres) to Japan`s Hokkaido island and are also near undisputed Russian territory.
Japan`s foreign minister is scheduled to visit Moscow from Thursday and the islands dispute is likely to be at the top of his agenda.
Progress was not expected.
Russia has said that it is tired of discussing the issue. Medvedev said after his visit that he considered the islands part of Russia`s sovereign territory and will return there whenever he pleases. Japan`s Kyodo news service reported that following the protest over the defence minister`s visit, Russia`s Foreign Ministry said it was growing weary of the matter.
Russia is seeking increased economic ties with Japan to help develop its Far East, and has tried to keep the territorial issue separate from economic relations. But Japan has been slow to embrace fuller trade and growth without progress toward an agreement on the islands.
Japan also has longstanding disputes over islands with China and South Korea.
Rival claims to the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands in the East China Sea swelled into a major diplomatic dispute late last year after the captain and crew of a Chinese boat operating near the islands was taken into custody by the Japanese Coast Guard. All were later released without charges.