Plan to first seek return of only two Russian-held islands off Hokkaido resurfaces


The government may offer to negotiate the return of two, rather than all four, Russian-held islands off Hokkaido with Moscow, in hopes the proposed compromise might finally see a breakthrough in the decades-old territorial dispute, Japanese government sources said Saturday.

While there is nothing new about the proposal — seeking the return of Shikotan Island and the Habomai islets as a first step was originally proposed by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2001 — its revival coincides with Putin’s return to the presidency this Monday.

Under the proposed negotiating framework, the sovereignty of the two remaining islands, Etorofu and Kunashiri, would be discussed in tandem. The four isles, known in Russia as the Southern Kurils, were seized by Soviet forces after Japan’s surrender in World War II in August 1945.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s administration appears willing to sound out Putin over the proposal, as the president-elect expressed a certain degree of willingness to resolve the issue in an interview with foreign media outlets in March, the sources said.

Noda is thinking of dispatching Mori to Russia as a special envoy once Putin is sworn in as president, to convey Japan’s eagerness to resolve the long-standing quarrel, they said.

Noda and Putin will meet on the sidelines of a Group of Eight summit in the United States in mid-May, but it remains unclear whether Mori would visit Moscow before or after the two leaders’ tete-a-tete, the sources added.

Negotiating the return of Shikotan and the Habomei islets rather than all four islands at once previously met with resistance in Japan, due to fears it would result in Moscow retaining control of Etorofu and Kunashiri indefinitely.

Such concerns prompted Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Mori’s successor, to seek a comprehensive resolution to the dispute before the two sides conclude a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities, but Putin ultimately dismissed the suggestion.

A 1956 joint declaration by Japan and the Soviet Union stipulates that Shikotan and the Habomai islet group will be returned after the two sides sign a peace treaty to officially end the war, but as Tokyo has long demanded the return of all four islands the two sides have been unable to sign an accord.