Japan, Russia eye WWII peace talks: ministers

Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara (front) attends a press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov after their meeting in Moscow on February 11, 2011.

TOKYO - Japan and Russia took a step towards making a peace that has eluded them since World War II on Friday, with a loose agreement for talks on a treaty.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov agreed there would be negotiations aimed at settling the dispute, which centres around the sovereignty of a chain of islands north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

"Today, Minister Lavrov and I agreed that our two nations shall hold vice-ministerial level talks in either late January or early February," Kishida told a joint press conference.

"Naturally, negotiations toward a peace treaty will be taken up in that," he said, adding they would likely touch on the territorial dispute.

Kishida said he would visit Russia next spring to hold another round of ministerial level talks.

"It's important that our two nations enhance bilateral ties on all fronts," he added.

Despite an important commercial relationship that is now much influenced by Japan's need to buy fossil fuels and Russia's desire to sell them, the two neighbours remain at odds over the sovereignty of a cluster of windswept islands to Japan's north and Russia's far east.

The islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, but Russia administers as the Southern Kurils, were seized by Soviet troops as WWII thundered to a close.

The Japanese occupants were turfed out and the USSR began to people the area, as part of a drive to consolidate control over its far east. They remain under-developed, but harbour rich fishing reserves.

Japan and Russia have held a succession of summit talks, the latest stage of a burgeoning relationship that represents a rare neighbourly entente for Tokyo.

Four separate meetings have taken place between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past six months, an unusual frequency for such high-level exchanges.

"The Russia-Japan relationship in recent times has enjoyed a positive atmosphere, allowing us to resume discussions on" the peace treaty, Lavrov said in the joint address.

"It's important that matters such as this be carried out in a calm environment that is not emotional and avoid public discussions" that might prevent cool-headed exchanges, Lavrov added.

The affable tone stands in marked contrast to the the state of relations between Japan and China.

Asia's two largest economies are at diplomatic daggers drawn over the sovereignty of a chain of islands in the East China Sea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have not met for a formal sit-down since either came to power.

Exchanges between the two countries are carried out through increasingly shrill public statements as their coastguards spar in waters near the islands.

A pair of sparsely populated islets that sit between Japan and the Korean peninsula are also the focus of a separate squabble between Tokyo and Seoul.

While both disputes are nominally territorial, they are fanned by unresolved historical differences and growing nationalism.

Kishida and Lavrov met on the eve of a so-called "2+2" meeting that will see the foreign ministers joined by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera on Saturday.

The diplomatic-defense talks are something that Japan has only ever done before with the United States and Australia.

The meeting is not expected to produce much in the way of tangible results, but will provide useful mood music for the blossoming relationship.