In the past month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has snuggled up to two of the world’s most distrusted national leaders in an attempt to prove his diplomatic mettle and boost support rates ahead of a rumored snap election next year. Abe was the first country head to gain an audience with President-elect Donald Trump in a meeting whose kitschy setting, prematurity and air of pointlessness highlighted Abe’s desperation. Then, last week, he welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to a hot-spring resort in his home constituency of Yamaguchi Prefecture, thus raising eyebrows in various foreign capitals. Last summer, when Abe hosted the annual summit of leaders of the industrialized world, it was with the G-7, not G-8, because the others had decided to uninvite Putin due to his actions in Ukraine and Syria.

Abe is not being a maverick. There were specific national interests tied to these meetings. The confab with Putin was presented as a concerted attempt to get the four islands the Soviets seized at the end of World War II — the so-called Northern Territories — returned to Japan. It didn’t work out that way at all.

In fact, it was never going to work out that way, and anyone with any knowledge of the issue knew that, but the Japanese media persuaded the public that there was some possibility Putin could be bent toward Japan’s will, even if that only meant the return of two islands. This concession also wasn’t going to happen. The summit has been called a bust, but the fact that it effectively destroyed the government-sanctioned verities related to the Northern Territories counts as the only progress the matter has seen in 70 years.

It’s not apparent if the public picked up on this paradox. According to an Asahi Shimbun survey, 45 percent of respondents thought the summit went well, while 41 percent said it didn’t. Meanwhile, 70 percent thought the meeting produced “nothing or not much,” while 27 percent felt the opposite. People are split as to whether the summit in and of itself was worthwhile, even if the majority thought little was accomplished.

These conflicting responses only make sense if you consider the media’s own conflicted approach. Because the official government line is that Russia must acknowledge Japanese sovereignty before a peace treaty can be negotiated, the press has a hard time conveying the truth of the matter, which is that more than 7,000 Russians live on the islands and don’t plan to ever leave. Japanese media relate this reality indistinctly, showing the inhabitants and even interviewing them, but never interpolating such reports into a coherent analysis of government policy, which has always been ahistorical and implausible. If any media outlet indicated the truth — that the sovereignty issue is a nonstarter — right-wingers would immediately arrive in front of their editorial offices and start screaming in protest.

But it was a conservative pundit, military affairs writer Sucho Montani, on the website Japan In-Depth, who provided the most lucid explanation of why Japan will never get those islands back. Beyond the presence of Russian nationals, he writes, the Russian military sees the territories as vital to its security. They’ve already set up missiles on two of them, a fact even NHK has acknowledged, though without elaboration. Russia’s English-language site, Sputnik International, describes it plainly: If Russia returned these islands it would “seriously damage (its) global image” and provide a “little tactical victory” for the U.S., which the Japanese Foreign Ministry has admitted would likely commandeer the prodigal territories for its military installations.

The difficulty for Abe was to get past these inconvenient truths and arrive at something workable, namely a cooperative development proposal that gives Japan an ongoing stake in the territories. Before he could do that he had to address the claims of hundreds of Japanese who call the islands home. Russia does not deny it ejected them by force, but insists the islands belonged to Imperial Russia before Japan took them over following its victory in the Japan-Russia War. Japan says its people inhabited those islands before the war without mentioning that the inhabitants were indigenous Ainu eventually displaced by the government. As pointed out in a Dec. 18 Asahi Shimbun editorial, Ainu activists have always resented Japanese “negotiations” for the Northern Territories because their claims are ignored. Even under Russia, the names of all four islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai — are from the Ainu language.

The provisional solution is to allow those former residents, whose average age is more than 80, to return to their old homes to visit, a solution that requires not only simplified visa procedures but an acknowledgment that Russia is in charge, and it’s Abe’s task to break the news gently to the Japanese people.

During a heated discussion on the web news service DemocraTV, former Lower House lawmaker Hiroshi Kawauchi stated that the government “has never had a solution” to the Northern Territories problem, and that the sovereignty policy was based on a lie. The 1956 agreement between Japan and Russia regarding future status of the territories says nothing about Japanese sovereignty, only the “possibility” that two islands might be returned “after” a formal peace treaty is signed. Japan gave up sovereignty in the San Francisco Treaty of 1951.

The independent journalists in the studio couldn’t hide their awe of Putin. One called him a “master salesman” who “intimidated and impressed” Abe. Like the prime minister, Japan’s mass media only seemed interested in “the show.” The press were obsessed with a 95-minute “secret” meeting between the leaders, whose outcome was already clear, and a communal bath that never took place because Putin wasn’t interested in scrubbing his counterpart’s back.

“It was like Japan’s national soccer team,” commented moderator Tsuyoshi Takase. “The media inflames the public’s hopes about their prospects, but in the end they’re always disappointed.”

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