Last month I had an opportunity to visit Kunashiri and Etorofu Islands — two of the four Russian-occupied islands claimed by Japan — under a visa-free exchange program. It was my second trip to the Northern Territories, which consist of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and Habomai Islands. On my first trip to the area last year I visited Shikotan and Etorofu. I want to discuss the significance — and the limitations — of the four-island exchange program.

An agreement on no-visa exchanges between Japan and the Northern Territories was signed in 1991 during a visit here by then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. In a way, the agreement was a concession by the Gorbachev administration that, its grip on power slipping, could not take any decisive action toward handing over the islands.

A Japan-Soviet joint communique recognized the existence of a territorial dispute between the two sides and mentioned the four islands as territories subject to negotiation. So, depending on how the negotiations develop, the islands may eventually revert to Japanese sovereignty.

The Northern Territories comprise a gray zone where lines of sovereignty are not 100 percent clear. The Gorbachev initiative opened a new vista by allowing Japanese to visit the four islands without obtaining visas from the Soviet government. Not only former Japanese residents of the islands are eligible for visa-free visits; other Japanese such as government officials, people involved with the Northern Territories issue, artists and intellectuals, can go as well.

The exchange program has a great mission. Life in the Northern Territories is extremely difficult, not only because fuel and other essential supplies are scarce, but also because of extensive arrears in wages. Partly for these reasons, the majority of Russians living there are not opposed to the handover of the islands to Japan; they even harbor a secret desire for it.

The Japanese government and private groups are giving humanitarian support to those needy Russians. Tokyo’s position is rather delicate, however, because assistance in the construction of semipermanent facilities, for example, could send the wrong signal — that the Japanese government has given up hopes for an early return of all four disputed islands.

That is part of the reason why the government counts on volunteer activities. In fact, many private groups, including nongovernmental organizations and the Japan Junior Chamber of Commerce, are actively engaged in the exchange program. They are trying to do everything possible to economically help Russian residents.

Their activities are worthy of special mention. More than half a century ago, 17,000 Japanese were evicted from the four islands by Soviet occupation forces. Volunteers are determined to see that Russian islanders do not meet a similar fate when the islands revert to Japanese control. A policy of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” cannot inspire human progress. This noble belief motivates the volunteers.

According to their private reversion plans, Russian residents would be able to stay if they wished. The question is whether Japanese and Russians will be able to coexist without conflicts of interest, given the wide economic disparities between Japan and Russia. In fact, at a dialogue meeting held last year on Shikotan Island, concerned Russian residents put the same question to Japanese participants.

Taking a broader perspective, will the Japanese and Russian peoples be able to build a relationship based on peaceful coexistence and good neighborly cooperation in the 21st century? The exchange program is playing a very important role as a “pilot study” to sort out this question prior to the actual reversion of the islands.

But the program, now in its ninth year, is faced with a serious dilemma: Stepped-up economic support and cultural and sports exchanges may push the settlement of the territorial issue further into the future and make it even more difficult to get the islands back. This is a very real possibility troubling those involved with the exchange movement.

Ideally, economic support and cultural exchanges should be promoted in parallel to the resolution of political and legal problems. They are inseparable, like the wheels of a cart. For practical purposes, however, it makes sense to promote economic and cultural contacts before resolving political and legal problems — assuming, of course, that this staggered approach will eventually produce the desired political and diplomatic results. As things stand, however, there are no signs that this will happen.

What is evident, rather, is a tendency to set higher and higher targets for economic support and cultural exchanges. At a recent dialogue meeting on Etorofu Island, Russian participants said they couldn’t care less about the knotty issues of territory and sovereignty as long as good economic and cultural relations are maintained. These comments came as a shock to Japanese volunteers.

The economic and cultural exchange movement that keeps legal and political problems on the back burner seems destined to hit the wall sooner or later. Private level exchanges can complement, but cannot substitute for, government-level talks. Much depends on a Japan-Russia summit meeting to be held later this year between Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and President Vladimir Putin.

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