Kuril Islands: thorn in side of Japan-Russia relations
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to the disputed Kuril Islands rubs salt in an old wound which has prevented a peace treaty being signed with Tokyo to formally end World War II hostilities.
The four disputed isles are part of the volcanic Kuril archipelago, which runs in a broad arc from Russia's Kamchatka peninsula down to Japan's northern Hokkaido island.
The islands were seized by Soviet troops in August 1945 just after the Pacific War ended with Tokyo's surrender to US forces.
Despite its role as an Allied power the Soviet Union had only declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945, after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and six days before the end of the conflict.
Ever since Japan has claimed ownership of the southernmost Kurils, which it controlled in full between 1855 and 1945 and describes as its Northern Territories, with the issue a constant irritant in ties with Moscow.
The islands' names are similar in both countries -- Kunashir, Habomai, Shikotan and Iturup in Russian, while Japanese they are known as Kunashiri, Habomai, Shikotan and Etorofu.
Their population of about 19,000 people live in a harsh climate, but the islands have mineral deposits including gold and silver, and rich fishing grounds.
Japan had warned that any visit to the islands by Medvedev would seriously hurt relations after the Russian leader said he planned to travel there in September and had only been prevented from doing so because of bad weather.
On Monday, Janese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara summoned Russian ambassador Mikhail Bely over the visit, Jiji Press reported.
After the islands were occupied in 1945, Moscow moved their Japanese population, then of about 17,000 people, to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and declared them part of the Soviet Union in 1946.
Thereafter the islands acquired major strategic importance, providing air and sea bases during the Cold War as the Soviet Union confronted the United States and its closest ally Japan in the Pacific.
On several occasions it appeared that off-and-on talks between Tokyo and Moscow were making progress and in 1956, when diplomatic relations were established, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev suggested two of the disputed islands -- Shikotan and Habomai -- might be returned under a peace treaty.
Although the talks resumed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, no progress has been made, with the issue of the islands the main stumbling block.
© 2010 AFP