Diet lawmaker Hodaka Maruyama was kicked out of opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai last month over remarks he made during an exchange excursion to one of the Russian-controlled islands off the coast of Hokkaido that Japan claims as its own. Other opposition parties have demanded he resign and the ruling coalition has submitted a rebuke of his behavior to the Diet. He has apologized but refuses to step down, claiming the right of free speech.

Maruyama was reportedly drunk when he got into an argument with a member of a visa-free exchange group consisting of former Japanese residents or descendants of the four disputed islands. The argument was about Japan’s and Russia’s respective claim to what the former calls the Northern Territories and the latter the Southern Kurils. Prior to World War II, the islands had belonged to Japan. At the end of the war, however, the Soviet Union invaded and has controlled them ever since. Japan is still negotiating for their return, although circumstances indicate there is no way Russia will give any of them back, despite a joint 1956 declaration implying the two smaller territories might be returned after a peace treaty is signed.

It is taboo in Japan for anyone, including media organizations, to accept the idea publicly that the islands will never revert to Japanese sovereignty. Maruyama violated this taboo when he asked Koyata Otsuka, the elderly leader of the Japanese group, if he saw any alternative other than war with Russia for reclaiming the islands. Any suggestion of Japan waging war is forbidden in light of the country’s pacifist Constitution and was particularly unwise given the ongoing negotiations with Russia over the territories. Essentially Maruyama was demanding Otsuka be realistic about the chances of Kunashiri being returned by Moscow: What sort of leverage does Japan have?

Maruyama’s question, or at least some form of it, should have been asked by the media a long time ago, and what’s interesting about his faux pas is what it revealed, albeit indirectly, of the futility of Japan’s decades-old scheme to get Russia to capitulate.

Most of these revelations came out in reporting by the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, which went into detail about what happened the night of May 11 when Maruyama made his fateful remark. The argument took place at the House of Friendship, a two-story prefab structure more casually referred to as Muneo House, after disgraced Hokkaido politician Muneo Suzuki, who helped build it for the exchange program. The former residents’ group, which was participating in a four-day intergovernmental program to visit graves of ancestors and interact with local Russians, was confined to the building for the night. Maruyama was one of two national politicians accompanying them.

Members of some media outlets were also there, but not Shukan Bunshun, which recreated events based on interviews with witnesses. Some members of the group had already been drinking that day since Russian hosts often offer vodka to their guests, and they continued imbibing with alcohol brought from Japan. Maruyama joined the revelry — uninvited, according to Shukan Bunshun — and became rowdy, making off-color comments that offended many in the room. At about 8 p.m., he crashed a media interview with Otsuka and made the war remark.

However, according to Shukan Bunshun, the trouble didn’t stop there. Maruyama became more obnoxious, saying he was going to go outside and “buy a woman.” Exchange staff became anxious because Japanese visitors are prohibited from going anywhere on the island without express permission from Russian authorities. The staff had to physically prevent Maruyama from leaving, according to Shukan Bunshun. He objected, arguing that as a Diet member he had immunity and, since Kunashiri is “Japanese territory,” he should be able to go wherever he pleased. A government official told Shukan Bunshun that the staff had to watch him all night.

Former Foreign Ministry official Masaru Sato told the magazine that had Maruyama gone out and solicited a woman for sex, he would have been taken into custody by Russian police, which would have caused grave problems for the Japanese government, since Japan doesn’t formally recognize Russia’s legal jurisdiction. This would have led to a diplomatic row adversely affecting the negotiations. The organizers of the exchange told Shukan Bunshun that Maruyama had ruined the visit, which cost the central and Hokkaido governments about ¥27 million.

However, this potential disaster pointed to a deeper miscalculation on the part of the Japanese government. In a report published last June by the Mainichi Shimbun, a former Japanese resident from another disputed island in the Northern Territories, said that over the years the attitude of Russian residents to his chaperoned visits have changed from resentment to one of warm welcome because they no longer see former residents as a threat to their existence.

“It’s become more like a sister city exchange,” said another Japanese visitor.

In related articles that appeared in December and April, the Asahi Shimbun explained the enormous amount of investment Japan has made in the territories in order to curry favor with the Russians. In recent years, however, the Russian government has dramatically increased its own investment in infrastructure and social security for Russian residents, thus demonstrating that they are serious about getting more Russians to move there. At the same time, Russia restricts Japanese access. Outside of the exchange program, it is almost impossible for Japanese to visit the islands. Even the Asahi Shimbun, which has a bureau in Vladivostok, said it dispatched a “temporary” Russian assistant to carry out newsgathering on the islands, implying it couldn’t send its Japanese correspondent.

It’s not clear how much the exchange program costs, but professor Masanobu Furuya, who was studying the program, estimated in 2013 the total budget at the time to be around ¥2 billion a year. This figure includes the cost of trips by Russians to Japan — it isn’t called an exchange program for nothing — which is also paid for by Japan. No wonder Maruyama was frustrated.

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