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Can Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori stage a political comeback via his March 25 talks in Irkutsk with Russian President Vladimir Putin? Aides have hinted that he favors the “two-island” compromise solution to Japan’s long-festering dispute with Russia over ownership of the so-called Northern Territories.

In other words, Japan should put aside its claim to the two larger disputed islands of Etorufu and Kunashiri at the southern end of the Kuril Island chain in exchange for gaining the nearby islands of Shikotan and the Habomai group.

But conservative opposition in Japan to any back-tracking from Japan’s hardline “four-island” claim remains strong. Mori’s task is daunting.

Yet the facts of the dispute demand compromise. Under the Yalta agreements of February 1945, the United States promised the Kuril Islands to the Soviet Union in exchange for a Soviet promise to attack Japan. The U.S. stuck to that promise. In the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, it forced Japan to state unambiguously that it had renounced “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands.”

At the time there was absolutely no doubt that the Kuril Islands that Japan had renounced included Etorufu and Kunashiri. This was confirmed in a statement to the Diet on Oct. 19, 1951, by the Foreign Ministry’s Treaties Bureau head and by a map produced by the ministry.

Tokyo did try to insist that Shikotan and the Habomais historically could be seen as separate from the Kurils, but even here the U.S. was unsympathetic.

Then suddenly, in 1954, just as Moscow was beginning to hint it would agree to return Shikotan and the Habomais in exchange for a peace treaty with Japan, the Foreign Ministry began to insist that the “Kuril Islands” Japan had renounced at San Francisco excluded not just Shikotan and the Habomais but also Etorufu and Kunashiri, both of which also had to be returned before there could be a peace treaty.

In the course of a long career interest in foreign-policy questions, I have seen some remarkable back-flips and distortions in pro-Western policies — for example, the 1962 Indian border attack on China being condemned as a Chinese attack on India, the attempt by ethnic Albanians to drive Serbians from Kosovo being condemned as Serbian ethnic cleansing of the Albanians, and so on.

But for sheer gall the Foreign Ministry about-turn over Etorofu and Kunashiri has little equal (British officials, who later back-flipped to support the ministry position, described it at the time as “curious and naive”). In terms of poisonous and long-standing damage to international relations it also has few equals.

But even worse was to come. During formal peace-treaty talks in Moscow in 1956, the then Japanese foreign minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, agreed that Japan had no choice but to go back to its earlier position, namely to settle for the return of Shikotan and the Habomais — the two-island solution. But the U.S., which in 1951 had insisted on Japan’s renunciation of all the Kuril Islands, intervened rapidly to insist that if Tokyo did not persist with its claim to Etorufu and Kunashiri as well, the U.S. would see no reason to return Okinawa to Japan.

This was a back-flip of truly Machiavellian dimensions, aimed clearly at keeping Tokyo-Moscow relations in permanent Cold War deadlock, as was the Foreign Ministry move of 1954.

Over the years, a few brave souls have tried to revive the two-island solution, only to be shot down in flames not just by conservatives but also by a malleable public opinion that has since been made to believe that Japan’s four-island claim is totally valid and has never been in doubt. For a conservative like Mori to seem willing to reconsider the matter is a brave act.

Together with Mori’s several initiatives toward North Korea, it can also be seen as an attempt to bypass the moribund, rigidly pro-U.S. Foreign Ministry and to push Japan toward a more activist foreign policy, possibly under the influence of that closet LDP liberal and elderly power broker, former Secretary General Tsutomu Nonaka.

However, given the weakness of his political position in Japan, Mori might need some help from the Russian side. For example: After the 1956 talks, both sides issued a declaration in which the Soviets said they would return Shikotan and the Habomais after a peace treaty was signed. Moscow later said that Japan’s shift to a pro-U.S. policy nullified that promise, but at times it has also hinted that the declaration could be the basis of a settlement.

In pushing for a two-island solution, Mori has to be able to claim that it is the other side, not Japan, that has made concessions. One possibility would be to insist that he has now forced a wavering Moscow to abide by that 1956 declaration. If he could also get some vague wording saying the future of the other islands should be discussed peacefully some time in the future, he might even be able to return to Japan a minor hero.

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