By Denis Dyomkin
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russia and Japan sparred on Saturday over disputed islands that have strained their relations since World War Two, making no visible progress in talks toward a resolution weeks before Russia hosts a summit of Asian states.
Japan wants Russia to hand over four islands at the southern end of the Kuril chain that were occupied by Soviet forces at the end of the war in 1945, saying they are Japanese territory.
Moscow disagrees, and senior Russian officials have drawn protests from Japan in the past two years by traveling to the Pacific islands, which Russia calls the Southern Kurils and Japan calls the Northern Territories.
Tension over the issue was palpable beneath the diplomatic language at a joint news conference following talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart, Koichiro Gemba, who was also to meet President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
"It is very sad that 67 years after (World War Two) the territorial issue is still not resolved," Gemba said, speaking through an interpreter.
"I believe that amid conditions of serious changes in the strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific region, the need to resolve this problem is becoming greater and greater," he said in an apparent reference to China's growing might.
Lavrov rejected Japanese criticism of trips by officials including Dmitry Medvedev, who made the first visit to the islands by a Russian president in 2010 and traveled there again on July 3, this time as prime minister.
"We cannot accept the protests that have been heard from Tokyo about this," Lavrov said. "Russian authorities are responsible for improving the socioeconomic situation in this part of the Russian Federation and we will continue to do this."
Russia has dedicated new funds and political attention to the country's vast but sparsely populated Far East in advance of an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the coastal city of Vladivostok in September.
Lavrov said dialogue on the dispute should be held "in a calm atmosphere without whipping up emotions and without artificial historical interpretations."
Gemba said he had conveyed Japan's regret over Medvedev's trip to Kunashir, one of the islands, which lies 15 km (10 miles) off the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Angus MacSwan)