TOKYO - Japan lodged a stern protest with the South Korean embassy in Tokyo and South Korea's foreign ministry over a military drill reportedly practising the defence of disputed islands, the Japanese government said on Friday.

The two nations have long been at loggerheads over the sovereignty of the group of islets called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea, which lie about halfway between the East Asian neighbours in the Sea of Japan, which South Korea calls the East Sea.

South Korea's defence ministry said in a statement that the country's military has been conducting a routine military drill for the defence of the islands every year.

The islands are controlled by Seoul but also claimed by Tokyo.

This month's drill by South Korea marks the fourth under the administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol, Yonhap news agency reported.

Seoul and Tokyo have sought to improve relations, amid shared concerns about China's growing might, dogged by historical disputes stemming from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule. Yoon has made it a priority to mend ties with Tokyo since taking office in 2022.

Last week, South Korea and Japan held high-level economic talks for the first time in eight years.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang in Seoul; Editing by Nick Macfie)