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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Abe-Putin Talks Start

Dec. 15, 2016

A top-level meeting between the leaders of Japan and Russia is taking place in Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to his family's hometown -- a gesture of warm hospitality, but it is also seen as a reflection of the importance Abe is putting on this meeting.

At the top of the agenda is the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories, illegally occupied for more than 70 years by Russia, although Russia has another understanding of the issue.

There is a great deal of attention on whether the two leaders can find any sort of solutions, or at least a clue. Putin arrived directly from Moscow to Yamaguchi this afternoon and the two leaders immediately started talks.

"I want to negotiate on behalf of our country, keeping in mind the deep feelings of the Japanese people who used to live on the islands," Abe said.

Abe wants to push forward with negotiations on a longstanding territorial dispute over 4 Russian-controlled islands. But Putin is expected to prioritize cooperation in areas like the economy to build up mutual trust.

The 2 leaders started their 2-day summit by greeting each other.

"Welcome to Japan, President Putin. This is your first visit to Japan as President of Russia in 11 years. I am glad to have you here in the city of Nagato, my hometown," Abe said.

"Thanks to Prime Minister Abe's efforts, I have seen that the relationship with Japan has been moving forward. I and my colleagues have hopes that this meeting today will further contribute to our relationship," Putin said.

Japan refers to the disputed islands as the Northern Territories. It maintains the islands are an inherent part of its territory and were illegally occupied after World War Two. The dispute is the main reason why the 2 countries haven't signed a peace treaty.

Abe has met with Putin over a dozen times. His goal is to reach a deal that has eluded their predecessors for more than 70 years.

He has proposed taking a new approach to break the impasse on peace treaty negotiations. He pitched an 8-point economic cooperation plan back in May.

"I have gained a sense that I will be able to break the impasse (on peace treaty negotiations)," Abe said.

Recently, Russia has been struggling with low oil prices and sanctions over its actions in Ukraine, so it's keen on Japanese economic cooperation in its Far East.

Putin says Russia and Japan should sign a peace treaty but earlier this month, he also said this: "We believe we have no territorial issues at all. It's only Japan that believes it has a territorial problem with Russia."

Moscow maintains the islands became part of Russian territory as a result of the war.


Former Residents' Hopes

From Yamaguchi Prefecture, anchor Sho Beppu speaks via video linkup with NHK World's Jun Takahashi, who is at Nemuro in east Hokkaido.

Beppu: Jun, how are the people feeling about the summit?

Takahashi: Many people we spoke to are praying for progress on the territorial issue, no matter how small. Before leaving for the talks, Abe said he would take the former residents' feelings to heart -- so many of them have high expectations.

Beppu: Former residents of the islands are getting older and I think that adds urgency to resolving the matter.

Takahashi: That's right. More than 7 decades have passed since the former Soviet Union occupied the islands after World War Two. The average age of those driven out of their homes has topped 80. That's why many see the 2-day summit as their last chance to get the islands back while they are still alive.

They include 82-year-old Hirotoshi Kawata, a leading member of a group mainly made up of former residents. Kawata points out that people from the islands are getting older and passing away one after another.

He says headway on economic cooperation and the territorial issue will give them hope. He wants the talks to advance even if it's just by a step or two. People living here are aware that finding a solution is not an easy task, but that doesn't stop them from hoping that the leaders will make progress. Locals are watching for a breakthrough on visa-free visits to the 4 islands, as well as joint economic activity on them, at Friday's talks in Tokyo.


Sho Beppu's Analysis: Strong Leaders' Strength Tested

As we heard from Jun, even though the former residents of the Northern Territories know that an immediate breakthrough won't be easy, they are nevertheless desperate to see a solution. That makes perfect sense.

Who in the world would be happy to suddenly be chased from their homeland? And who would be happy to wait more than 7 decades for a solution?

The two countries did have various opportunities in the past to resolve this issue. Expectations grew high, for example, after Krasnoyarsk Agreement in 1997.

But, in those cases, momentum never led to a breakthrough.

Experts say that, actually, the current stable political situation in the 2 countries gives a good opportunity to find a solution. Both Abe and Putin are known as strong leaders.

And, real strength is to have the courage to make painful compromises for longstanding benefits.