Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, pictured, and Foreign Affairs Minister Fumio Kishida will meet with Russian counterparts Friday. (Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP)
TOKYO — Tokyo will play host to the foreign and defense ministers of Russia from Friday, the latest stage of a burgeoning relationship that represents a rare neighborly entente for Japan.
Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu will meet their Japanese counterparts Fumio Kishida and Itsunori Onodera in Tokyo in a so-called “2+2,” something that Japan has only ever done before with the United States and Australia.
The visit comes after four separate summit talks between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past six months, an unusual frequency for such high-level exchanges.
In their one-on-one meeting Friday, Lavrov and Kishida are expected to discuss a decades-old territorial row that has prevented the two countries ever signing a peace treaty after World War II.
The following day, the 2+2 will touch on ways to strengthen security co-operation, a Japanese foreign ministry official said.
The meeting “is expected to have an indirect, but positive impact on future talks towards a peace treaty, by building trust between the countries,” the official said.
Despite an important commercial relationship, which includes a growing trade in fossil fuels, Tokyo and Moscow remain at odds over the sovereignty of islands north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
The islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, but Russia administers as the Southern Kurils, were occupied by Soviet troops in the dying days of World War II.
The small Japanese population was evicted and the USSR peopled the archipelago as part of a drive to consolidate control over its wild east. They remain under-developed, but harbor rich fishing reserves.
“We’ve seen President Putin’s enthusiasm towards improving ties with Japan, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia is ready to make a compromise on the territorial issue,” the official said.
Relatively warm relations with Russia stand in marked contrast with Japan’s ties to China and South Korea.
Tokyo is embroiled in a bitter dispute with Beijing over the ownership of a chain of islands in the East China Sea which is largely being played out by cat and mouse games between coastguards from both sides and occasional invective.
The row took a sharp turn for the worse last week when Beijing said Tokyo’s reported plan to shoot down drones encroaching on its airspace would be “an act of war”.
Japan parried with accusations that China was endangering peace in the region.
A pair of sparsely populated islets that sit between Japan and the Korean peninsula are the focus of a separate squabble between Tokyo and Seoul.
While the disputes are nominally territorial, they are fanned by unresolved historical differences and growing nationalism.