Japan’s efforts to get back the four Russian-held islands off northeast Hokkaido suffered an apparent setback last year.

Negotiations with Russia made no headway, and scandals involving Lower House member Muneo Suzuki tarnished Japanese aid projects that Tokyo had hoped would improve the odds of the islands’ return.

“Since the Suzuki scandals, the issue has been considered tainted,” said Taiko Kodama, who was born on one of the Habomai islets and is a senior member of a private lobby calling for the islands’ return to Japan. “People harbor an image that the issue is somewhat dirty.”

The troubles began in February, when it was revealed that Suzuki had pressured the Foreign Ministry to restrict bids on a construction project on Kunashiri Island so that firms in his home district in Hokkaido could win the orders. The other disputed islands are Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islets.

Suzuki is believed to have exerted strong influence over the ministry’s policies in negotiations with Russia concerning sovereignty over the islands, which were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II.

Suzuki left the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in March under a cloud of scandal, including the Kunashiri case. He was arrested in June on a separate bribery charge and is currently on trial in the Tokyo District Court.

After his arrest, Foreign Ministry bureaucrats dealing with Russian affairs who had close links to Suzuki were removed from their positions.

The scandals also exposed the shoddy management of the Cooperation Committee, a organization affiliated with the Foreign Ministry that arranged aid projects for the disputed islands.

The committee is expected to be scrapped by the end of this March, and all aid projects for building facilities on the four islands were canceled in the fiscal 2003 budget. Aid decisions will now be made by the ministry itself.

Budget allocations to the Foreign Ministry for aid to residents of the islands were slashed by 85 percent to 47.4 million yen. Overall, the ministry’s budget on the islands, including paying for the reversion campaign and exchange programs, amounts to 364 million yen, down 48 percent from 708 million yen for fiscal 2002.

Due to the Suzuki scandals, the ministry is now limiting aid to the humanitarian level, such as medical supplies, according to Akira Imamura, chief of the ministry’s Russia Assistance Division.

When Suzuki exerted his influence in the late 1990s, the government suddenly began spending money on several large-scale construction projects that did not match the needs of the islanders. Instead, they were for the benefit of the Japanese firms that won the construction orders, according to people involved in aid programs for the islands.

Suzuki pushed for construction of a power plant on Kunashiri even though a government-commissioned consultant firm determined the facility was unnecessary.

“I believe aid projects carried out in the past (including construction projects) helped nurture sympathy toward Japan among residents on the disputed islands,” Imamura said. “But we needed to respond to criticism (about the previous nature of aid programs).”

There is now growing concern that the Foreign Ministry is cutting back on necessary aid.

After the government suspended all aid projects for constructing new facilities, the ministry dropped a plan to seek budgetary allocations to rebuild an elementary school on Shikotan damaged in an earthquake in 1994.

“I get the feeling that public enthusiasm toward the reversion of the four islands has dwindled,” said Toshio Koizumi, chairman of the League of Residents of Chishima and Habomai Islands, a group of Japanese former residents of the islands.

In 1997, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed that a peace treaty should be concluded and the territorial row settled by the end of 2000.

This target passed without substantial progress in negotiations, with Koizumi saying that public interest has since declined and the Suzuki scandals have exacerbated the problem.

Suzuki was one of the most enthusiastic and influential politicians pushing for a resolution to the territorial dispute, Koizumi said, admitting he asked for his support on numerous occasions.

In 2000, Suzuki made several trips to Russia, reportedly to sound out the possibility of a two-step approach: seeking the return of the Habomais and Shikotan, to be followed sometime later by Kunashiri and Etorofu.

The government has since abandoned this approach.

In December, about 30 Diet members, including former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, agreed to form a nonpartisan group early this year to lobby the government to make a bigger effort to get the islands back. It will be the first such lawmaker group to deal solely with the dispute.

Suzuki’s arrest is one reason why many lawmakers decided to organize the group, according to Kodama, who urged the Diet members to band together.

In 1999, there was a similar move by lawmakers hoping to settle the dispute by the 2000 target set by Hashimoto and Yeltsin, but this plan was scrapped partly because of the involvement of Suzuki, who set too many conditions, Kodama said.

“At that time, opposition lawmakers had the feeling that if a nonpartisan group was formed, it would basically be a ‘Muneo’ group,” said Kodama, who believes the reversion campaign may proceed more smoothly with Suzuki out of the picture.

“When organizing a movement, it will be better if several politicians are involved, instead of one lawmaker playing a dominant role,” she said.

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