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The disputed Kuril Islands

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A protracted territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands, some of which can be seen clearly from the Shiretoko Peninsula, means that technically Japan and Russia are still fighting World War II. A peace accord has yet to be signed because of Russia’s continued occupation of these volcanic islands, which are strung across the Sea of Okhotsk between the Kamchatka Peninsula and northeastern Hokkaidō.

Known in Japan as the Northern Territories, or Chishima (Thousand Islands), and in Russia as the Kurils, only five of the islands are permanently inhabited. Japan demands the return of the four southernmost islands of Kunashiri, Shikotan, Etorofu and the Habomai group, the closest of which is less than 20km off Hokkaidō’s coast. The islands themselves are fairly desolate; it is their strategic importance, rich mineral resources and the surrounding fishing grounds that make them so desirable.

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