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. The U.S. delegation includes
three openly gay representatives.
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 Territories 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," said
Abe addressing the gathering in Tokyo.
"This is why I will engage in tenacious negotiations with Russia,"
Abe added, speaking from a stage with the slogan "Return the Four
Northern Islands" and the Japanese flag at his back.
Also attending were ministers, lawmakers and representatives of
political parties, as well as former island residents. One woman who
used to live on the islands broke down in tears as she recounted how
she had been made to leave.
Moscow took the islands east of Hokkaido days before Japan
surrendered in World War Two, forcing 17,000 Japanese to leave. The
often acrimonious dispute has kept the two countries from signing a
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
By contrast, the leaders of China and Korea have rebuffed Abe's
repeated calls to meet. Besides the isle spats, Abe angered Beijing
and Seoul with a December pilgrimage to a shrine they see as a
symbol of Tokyo's past militarism.
Russia, too, criticized the shrine visit, but did not let it derail
ties with Japan.
Abe's Sochi trip is "a manifestation that
country-to-country relations are moving in a good direction," said
former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who has longstanding ties with
Russia and has done much of the legwork for Abe's bilateral
diplomacy. Mori told reporters the two sides are trying to arrange
for Putin to visit Japan in the autumn.
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Abe has made ties with Russia a priority, starting with a
first-in-a-decade Moscow summit. Talks are to continue this year,
although neither side expects a swift end to the dispute.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the opening of the
talks in Moscow last month but stressed that recognition of the
outcome of the war would be vital.
Moscow wants to bolster its position in East Asia as it warily
watches the growth of China's influence in the region.
"Putin, for his part, just like Obama, is shifting towards East
Asia," said Nobuo Shimotomai, professor at Hosei University in
Tokyo. "He aims to do that by playing Russia's soft-power trump
card, that is by selling energy to the region's countries," he said.
A dramatic transformation is underway in Russia's energy sector,
with oil flows being redirected to Asia via the East Siberia-Pacific
Ocean pipeline. Russia plans to at least double oil and gas flows to
Asia over the next 20 years, as it pivots away from export routes to
That spells opportunity for Japan, which has been forced to import
huge volumes of fossil fuel to replace its entire nuclear power
industry, shut down after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami wrecked
the Fukushima plant.
Japan now consumes a third of global liquefied natural gas
shipments, a key reason for its record 18 months of trade deficits.
Russian gas lies on Japan's doorstep and already makes up about a
tenth of its LNG imports. That could rise as Tokyo is desperate to
diversify and slash costs of energy imports.
(Editing by William Mallard and Clarence Fernandez)
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