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Ties between Russia and Japan get even worse because of the war in Ukraine

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Japan Wednesday for being the first Asian nation to pressure Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. He made the remarks in a virtual speech to Japan's parliament. Japan has tried to cooperate with the international community in sanctioning Russia. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, it has had to overcome some constraints to do that.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At the end of World War II, Japan never signed a peace treaty with the then-Soviet Union. That's because of an unresolved dispute over what Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia calls the southern Kuril Islands. Russia seized them in 1945. On Monday, Moscow pulled out of stalled peace talks, citing what it called Japan's unfriendly positions, a reference to its sanctions on Russia. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke to parliament about it Tuesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER FUMIO KISHIDA: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: "This entire situation has been created by Russia's invasion of Ukraine," he said. "And Russia's response to push this onto Japan-Russia relations is extremely unfair and completely unacceptable." Last week, Kishida said the Northern Territories were illegally occupied by Russia. Tokyo hasn't used that language since 2009. Mitoji Yabunaka, a former vice minister for foreign affairs, says that Kishida's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, bent over backwards to try to get a deal on the islands with Vladimir Putin.

MITOJI YABUNAKA: Former Prime Minister Abe, he had talks with Putin 27 times, 27 times.

KUHN: Another reason Japan has been cautious is that it imports about 9% of its liquefied natural gas from Russia. So when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Japan responded with a few token sanctions. This time, though, it sanctioned Russian banks, institutions and individuals, including Putin himself. It sent non-lethal aid to Ukraine. And it's begun to accept Ukrainian refugees. Mitoji Yabunaka says the measures have won broad public support.

YABUNAKA: Japanese people feel so sorry. And we are so sort of angry to President Putin of his action, invading the sovereign country of Ukraine.

KUHN: The invasion has also amplified calls for more defense spending to counter perceived threats from North Korea and China. Former Prime Minister Abe even called for considering hosting U.S. nuclear weapons in Japan. Prime Minister Kishida flatly rejected that option. Yabunaka argues that the focus now should be on diplomacy in Europe.

YABUNAKA: This is not the time that we rush into that kind of argument. We should clearly examine what happened before February 24 and what is happening today. Was there any chance for diplomacy to prevent the Russian invasion into Ukraine?

KUHN: One result of frictions between Tokyo and Moscow is that the dispute over the remote islands appears unlikely to be resolved soon. That's mostly a symbolic issue, except for Japanese who lived on the islands or their offspring. Sakiko Suzuki (ph) was born on Etorofu - or Iturup in Russian. She's now 83. She remembers that when she was ten years old, Russian troops deported Japanese residents from the island.

SAKIKO SUZUKI: (Non-English language spoken)

KUHN: Suzuki says that the island was peaceful before Russian troops arrived. And even after, Japanese and Russian civilians managed to get along.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.