TOKYO: Russian military officials will attend exercises of Japan’s ground self-defense forces for the first time in the history of relations between the two countries, a Russian diplomatic source told RIA Novosti on Friday.

A group of Russian military observers has been invited to monitor the drills of the 7th tank division, which is part of the Northern Army deployed on the island of Hokkaido.

“It is the first visit of Russian military observers for land-based exercises of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). It is important to note that the drills will be held on Japan’s most northern island, which is the closest to the Russian border,” the source at the Russian embassy in Japan told RIA Novosti.

“The fact that the Russian officials were given access to the ‘sanctum sanctorum’ of the JSDF – the Northern Army could be rightfully called a historic event,” the source added.

According to the source, the visit will continue from September 28 until October 2. The Russian military officials will monitor live-firing drills conducted by the 7th tank division, and visit the headquarters of the Northern Army.

The first official contacts between the Russian and Japanese defense ministries date back to 1993. The countries signed a “Memorandum on creating a foundation for the development of dialogue and contacts” in 1999, which was renewed in 2006.

The document envisions consultations between the respective defense ministries, exchange visits of observers and warships and joint sea search-and-rescue drills.

Japanese military observers attended for the first time Russian military exercises in the Leningrad military district in September last year.

The lengthy dispute over the four southern Kuril islands has so far prevented Russia and Japan from signing a formal WWII peace treaty. The islands were annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of the war.

In 2006 Russia offered to return to Japan the Shikotan and Khabomai islands, with a combined area of just 276 square kilometers (172 square miles), or 6% of the disputed territory, on the condition that Tokyo renounced its claims to the two larger islands, Iturup and Kunashir, whose combined area totals 4,629 square kilometers (2,890 square miles).

Japan rejected the proposal, insisting on its right to all four islands. Japan’s parliament infuriated Russia in June by passing a law declaring the islands Japanese territory.

However, new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has recently told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he wants to resolve a territorial dispute with Russia and conclude a peace agreement.