Lack of progress Tuesday on the territorial dispute will go down as yet another win for Moscow as Russia continues to expand its presence on the islands it holds off Hokkaido.
During the summit between Prime Minister Taro Aso and Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, the two sides agreed on strengthening economic ties, most notably on peaceful use of nuclear energy.
But as Russia proceeds with a multiyear plan to boost infrastructure on the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islets, which were all seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War II, Japan faces little chance of Moscow returning the territories.
“There hasn’t been any progress in the territorial row, and the only thing Japan can do now is strengthen ties with Moscow through economic cooperation,” Kazuro Umetsu, a former professor at Nagoya Gakuin University, told The Japan Times.
Japan is calling for a quick and complete resolution on the territorial dispute, meaning a return of all the islands, but there is no reason for Russia to take a quick or compromising step.
“Russia may not agree to make a significant advance, but Tokyo just needs to stick to its claim,” Umetsu said.
Putin’s visit comes amid recent remarks by government representatives hinting a change in Tokyo’s position over the islands.
Aso told reporters after a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev in February that the dispute cannot be resolved as long as Japan demands the return of all four islands and Russia agrees to only allow a partial return.
Such comments were taken to suggest Tokyo was willing to compromise, prompting former Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi last month to reportedly remark that Tokyo could settle for “3.5” of the islands.
While Yachi has since said his remark was taken out of context, Tadae Takubo, a visiting professor at Kyorin University who spoke with Yachi on the issue, said such conciliatory comments were uncalled-for.
According to Takubo, who held a news conference last month, Yachi explained that Russia was facing economic difficulties concurrently with its territorial dispute with Georgia, and that it was being driven into a corner by its European neighbors.
The proposal for a partial return was intended to make the best of the situation, in which Japan could take advantage of a weakened Russia to secure its sovereignty over the islands once and for all, Takubo quoted Yachi as saying.
But Takubo said he “questioned the comment and (Yachi’s) intentions, especially since it came right before Putin’s visit.”
Conservative lawmakers and professors, including Yuriko Koike of the Liberal Democratic Party and Yukihisa Fujita of the Democratic Party of Japan, were quick to blast any hint of Japan softening its position. Their 87-member group placed an ad in major newspapers Monday demanding that the government insist that Moscow return all four islands.
Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone has basically avoided the fray, only saying Tuesday that Japan has queried Russia about the lack of progress over the dispute. A top official at the ministry said Japan will stick to its claim that all of the islands belong to Japan.
“As prime minister, Putin doesn’t have the authority to manage territorial disputes. But it is also true that Putin would need to push Moscow to reach any progress on the matter,” the official said.
But the Russian side has shown no intention of conceding, with Putin telling the media before arriving in Japan the “time is not ripe” for the territorial dispute to be resolved. He will depart Wednesday with a new nuclear energy agreement but without a signed peace treaty to formally end World War II.
The 56-year dispute will continue regardless of the heated public debate in Japan.
“It’s way too naive to think Russia has any intention of returning all the islands,” Shigeki Hakamada, a professor of Russian studies at Aoyama Gakuin University, said last month.
The government and the Foreign Ministry may be acting as if a resolution is in the offing, but that’s far from the mark, he said.
“It needs to be understood that, when Moscow speaks of the need to resolve the issue, it is in fact asking Japan to compromise,” he said.
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