Photo/IllutrationThe Twitter account for Erika-chan, the mascot for the Northern Territories (From the Internet)

In Japan's "war of words" for the return of the Northern Territories, a cuddly mascot named Erika-chan has been one of its most loyal soldiers for the past four years.

However, on Feb. 7, when public rallies are held to champion the return of the disputed islands, the mascot was AWOL this year on Twitter, perhaps reflecting Japan's changed stance on the negotiations.

While virtually every municipality in Japan has a similar mascot to help publicize local products and events, Erika-chan caused a different stir as the publicity character for the Northern Territories.

Erika-chan is designed in the shape of a tufted puffin, a seabird that inhabits Cape Nosappu in Hokkaido. The Habomai islets, part of the Northern Territories, islands off the coast of Hokkaido seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and claimed by Tokyo, are visible from the cape.

Erika-chan first attracted the attention of Internet users in a tweet posted to the account (@hoppou_erika) on Feb. 9, 2015.

She said a quiz about the Northern Territories would be conducted, starting with a question that even beginners could likely answer.

The first question was: Which nation is illegally occupying the Northern Territories?

Coming from such a cute mascot, the question led to tweets that Erika-chan was almost like an outlaw rocker because the question was so out of character for a mascot.

Not bothered by such responses, Erika-chan followed up with a tweet that said the correct answer was "Russia."

She then presented the second question giving the kanji for one of the Northern Territories, which Erika-chan said was Japan's "inherent territory," and asked what the proper reading of it was.

Fast forward four years later, it is almost impossible to hear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Foreign Minister Taro Kono and other Japanese officials refer to the "illegal occupation" of Japan's "inherent territory."

Moreover, a November agreement between Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin has apparently changed the Japanese position from seeking the return of all four islands of the Northern Territories to focusing first on the return of the Habomai islets and Shikotan.

With that as a backdrop, some on the Internet were interested in what Erika-chan had to tweet on Feb. 7 when annual rallies are held in Tokyo and Hokkaido concerning the return of the Northern Territories.

Last year, Erika-chan tweeted on Feb. 6 that "tomorrow is a very special day." The next day, she posted a total of 24 tweets, including streaming video of the national rally demanding the return of the Northern Territories as well as another quiz about the islands. Erika-chan also showed how "inherent territory" is translated into Russian.

But Erika-chan had nothing to say on Feb. 7 this year. It was only on the following day that she tweeted, "I will continue to support the government's negotiations."

This year's silence should not come as any surprise since the Erika-chan handler is the Northern Territories Issue Association, which is overseen by the Cabinet Office and other government entities.

The silence of Feb. 7 showed that observers should not get their hopes up about the activities of a mascot that was created and managed by the government.