Photo/IllutrationThe Foreign Ministry’s 2019 Diplomatic Bluebook, front, and the 2018 Diplomatic Bluebook. The latest edition does not refer to Japan’s traditional stance in its territorial dispute with Russia. (Tamiyuki Kihara)

The government dropped its claim of sovereignty over four disputed islands with Russia in its latest annual foreign policy report, a gesture apparently aimed at not antagonizing Moscow.

The conciliatory approach reflects Tokyo's decision to tread cautiously on the issue as it seeks the return of at least two of the islands known as the Northern Territories.

The Foreign Ministry’s 2019 Diplomatic Bluebook, released April 23, dropped last year's wording, “Japan’s position is that the four Northern Islands belong to Japan.”

Asked about the shift, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said at a news conference the same day, “The Diplomatic Bluebook is compiled each year after taking various factors into consideration with much thought.”

Japanese officials have avoided expressions such as “illegal occupation of the islands by Russia” and “the issue of the attribution of the Northern Territories” during recent Diet sessions.

The cautious approach follows an agreement reached last November by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin to accelerate talks on the conclusion of a peace treaty to formally end hostilities dating from World War II.

The four islands off eastern Hokkaido were seized by the Soviet Union at the close of the conflict.

The Diplomatic Bluebook is an annual publication that spells out Japan's position on foreign policy and international affairs.

Policy references on North Korea also got a makeover.

The 2018 edition of the Diplomatic Bluebook said North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles posed “grave and imminent threats” and called for “maximizing pressure on North Korea.”

On the issue of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago by North Korea, the same book said Japan will “press North Korea for the early resolution of the abductions issue through leveraging the international community’s pressure on North Korea.”

But those passages were deleted from the 2019 version in an effort not to irritate North Korea and elicit a positive response from Pyongyang on resolving the abduction issue, according to Japanese officials.

With regard to South Korea, the latest edition sad Japan faces an extremely difficult situation in its relations with that country.