LOS ANGELES — The Japanese people are angry about a lot of things these days, not just their soggy economy. They are angry about the collision of a U.S. submarine with a Japanese fisheries ship off Hawaii. They are angry about their prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, who incredibly continued with a golf game last week even after aides had informed him of the tragedy. And they have been angry for months at Russia for acting in a dangerously petty, if not ugly and treacherous, way over something important to them: the return of the so-called Northern Territories. And to add to Japan’s frustration, all these issues are related.

The Russian issue, scarcely known in the West, involves control of a string of islands just off the northern coast of Japan. The Russians say the islands belong to them; the Japanese say otherwise. The truth is that Japan is right, and the Russians should give them back.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin reneged on a three-year-old promise to meet with Japan’s prime minister over what the Russians call the Kuril Islands, and the Japanese the Chishima Islands, but which are widely known as the Northern Territories. In the waning days of World War II, the Russians seized the islands as a vanquished Japan was imploding. But in recent years, Tokyo had been led to believe that at least two of the larger islands would soon be returned.

Of course, Tokyo isn’t about to go to war over a largely barren string of 56 volcanic islands that may or may not sit atop oil and other natural resources. Even if Japan wanted to, it couldn’t; the Japanese Constitution forbids offensive military action. And, in fact, Japanese opinion generally maintains an antimilitarist tone, even to the point of questioning the need for U.S. bases in Japan, an attitude not likely to abate after last week’s tragedy at sea — a tragedy that may have been at least partially attributable to U.S. military arrogance.

What’s more, Mori’s Cabinet has had the lowest approval rating of any in recent years. Last week’s golf-course gaffe will scarcely add to his stature. These days, he can barely muster enough public support to launch a paper airplane, much less a war. Which is precisely why Putin’s decision to cancel an upcoming summit with Mori, designed to settle the islands impasse, was so insulting. True, his country’s nationalists were in revolt over the prospect of returning the islands, as he pointed out in explanation. But so are Japan’s equally vocal nationalists, as he well knows. Thus, Moscow, which has had diplomatic relations with Tokyo since 1855 but still hasn’t formally settled World War II with Japan, should return the two smaller of the four largest islands immediately and negotiate in good faith the status of the rest.

It would be the right thing to do. The islands are historically far more Japanese than Russian, and were taken by stealth. Besides, the last thing Russia needs is more mostly barren land. Returning the islands would also be wise: Slick Putin, an enigmatic presence on the world stage, would go a long way toward developing a reputation for trustworthiness — and for ability to control his own extreme nationalists — by making such a gesture. But there is even more in it for Putin and Russia, namely, a lot of new investment from Japan.

For an issue like the Northern Territories, however, outside pressure would help — and if that help came from Washington, it could go a long way toward alleviating growing anti-Americanism in Japan.

The Bush administration should offer tactful, deft third-party mediation. If the new administration plans to maintain a high U.S. profile in Asia, it can’t ignore the effect of the obnoxious Russian rebuff on Japan’s domestic equanimity. It also needs to draw a firm line in the choppy Pacific waters against dangerous Russian nationalists like Putin.

And remember how the Bush administration came to power with the conviction that the Clintonites had made too much of Sino-U.S. relations and not enough of U.S.-Japanese ties? In fact, if the previous administration tilted excessively toward any nation, it was not China — as the Bush people believe — but Russia.

Even so, handled in a way that doesn’t push all the wrong buttons in Beijing, Bush’s instinct about re-tilting toward Japan could do some good. But it should be done to help Japan overcome a provocation from Moscow, not to shut out Beijing. Bush, who didn’t even have the sense to telephone the Japanese prime minister to express regrets over the sub incident that left nine Japanese lost at sea, should quietly get involved. The Chishima/Kuril dispute is about as close as anything gets in world politics to a clear issue of right and wrong.

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