Before joining the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Foreign Minister Taro Kono was regarded as a reform-minded, maverick politician who often rebelled against top government officials.

But that image was tarnished during a news conference Tuesday when he ignored a question from a reporter four times in a row, bluntly repeating only one phrase: “Next question, please.”

The exchange, which was later aired repeatedly by news programs on national TV stations, started when a reporter asked Kono how he would respond to a comment by his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, in which Lavrov had reportedly said Japan should accept the consequences of World War II if it wants to conclude a postwar peace treaty with Russia.

Lavrov indicated that Japan should give up at least some of the islands northeast of Hokkaido, which were occupied by Russia during the last days of World War II but have long been claimed by Japan.

Kono didn’t respond to the reporter’s question about Lavrov’s comment, only saying “Next question, please.”

Two other reporters asked related questions, but Kono only repeated the same phrase. When a fourth reporter asked why he had only repeated the same phrase and had refused to answer, Kono again reacted in the same manner: “Next question, please.”

When a fifth reporter asked if he believes it is appropriate to respond to questions from reporters in such a blunt way, Kono finally said: “I’d like to prepare an environment for negotiations” with Russia.

According to a report by Jiji Press, Kiyomi Tsujimoto, Diet affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, criticized Kono’s reluctance to answer questions, saying that Kono “is worse than U.S. President (Donald) Trump and disqualified to be foreign minister.”

In recent months Japan and Russia have continued intense negotiations over the islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan, which Russia invaded and occupied from Aug. 28 to Sept. 5, 1945, after Japan declared its surrender by accepting the Potsdam Declaration.

The two countries have yet to conclude a postwar peace treaty mainly because of the lingering territorial row over the islands.

Speculation has been rife for weeks that Tokyo may strike a compromise by clinching a deal with Moscow that accepts the reversion of only two of the four groups of islands. Such a deal could draw a strong backlash from voters.

During a Lower House session on Dec. 5, Kono indicated that he may refrain from speaking about the ongoing talks with Russia, saying that commenting on such a sensitive issue in public could draw a reaction from Moscow and make the negotiations more difficult.

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