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Japan fears lawmaker's 'war' gaffe may impact isle talks with Russia

JIJI, Kyodo

Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, leader of Nippon Ishin no Kai, has reiterated his condemnation of recent remarks by a lawmaker in the party suggesting war as a way for Japan to recapture four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

House of Representatives lawmaker Hodaka Maruyama, 35, a member of Nippon Ishin, made the comments while accompanying former Japanese residents of the islands on their four-day visa-free visit there through Monday.

If a resolution demanding Maruyama’s resignation were to be submitted to the Diet, Nippon Ishin would support it, Matsui said Wednesday. The party leader had said Tuesday that Maruyama should resign, and Maruyama was expelled from the party.

“It’s outrageous for a Diet member to have made such remarks and it’s also an extremely grave issue from a diplomatic standpoint,” Matsui told reporters following the party’s decision to expel Maruyama. “He should now step down as a lawmaker.”

According to a senior party official, Nippon Ishin learned of the remarks through a phone call from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Observers suggest there is concern in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration that Russia may further toughen its stance in bilateral territorial negotiations following the remarks. Tokyo hopes to calm the situation by clearly condemning the comments, and clarifying its stance afresh that Japan hopes to settle the issue peacefully.

The remarks were “extremely regrettable,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Tuesday morning. “There is no change to the government’s stance of aiming to resolve the territorial issue through diplomatic negotiations,” Suga said.

It is rare for the top government spokesman to comment on a gaffe by an opposition lawmaker. Suga reiterated his condemnation of Maruyama at an afternoon news conference the same day, saying, “It’s obvious to anyone that the comments were inappropriate.” Maruyama should take responsibility for his remarks, Suga added.

Maruyama said Tuesday he will continue to serve as a lawmaker, posting a message on his Twitter account saying, “While working independently, I will try to realize my remaining policies one by one.” He had apologized and retracted his remarks.

Tokyo claims that the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, were seized from Japan by the former Soviet Union at the end of World War II. The territorial dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a peace treaty to formally end their wartime hostilities.

On Monday, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, criticized Maruyama’s remarks as “the worst (he) had heard” in connection with Japan-Russia relations.

“We hope to conduct the bilateral (territorial and peace treaty) negotiations in a situation (that is) as calm as possible,” Foreign Minister Taro Kono told a news conference Tuesday. “I don’t think the remarks will have any positive impact.”

Moscow’s toughening stance on the bilateral talks may be behind the administration’s sensitivity to Maruyama’s gaffe.

At their summit in November last year, Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to accelerate the negotiations based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration. But since the summit Moscow has started to take a firmer stance on the issue.

Concluding a broad agreement in the bilateral negotiations during the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in late June was initially tipped as a possibility but this is now highly unlikely, and Japan’s government has been forced to overhaul its negotiation strategy.

“We have to prevent Maruyama’s remarks from affecting the negotiations,” Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi, state minister in charge of Northern Territories affairs, told a news conference Tuesday.

The 1956 declaration called for the handover of two of the four islands — the Habomai islets and Shikotan — to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. The document had no reference to the other two islands — Etorofu and Kunashiri.