Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Thursday viewed the Northern Territories aboard a Japan Coast Guard ship. It was a high-profile trip that appeared to demonstrate his determination to tackle the territorial issue with Russia. Many Japanese are wondering, though, whether it was a political grandstand play designed to shore up his sagging popularity.

The Northern Territories refer to the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan, and the Habomai islets, which Soviet troops seized at the end of World War II. These islands, situated off Hokkaido, are now held by Russia. In 1956, under a joint declaration that ended the technical state of war between Japan and the Soviet Union, Tokyo and Moscow restored diplomatic ties. But the territorial dispute has blocked the signing of a peace treaty.

The trip, which was made at the request of former islanders and their relatives, is a sobering reminder that the dispute remains the biggest obstacle to the full normalization of Russo-Japanese relations. Mr. Koizumi needs to follow up on the journey lest it ends up as a public-relations stunt. For a start, he should get the stalled territorial talks moving.

Mr. Koizumi is the first prime minister to make a boat tour off the Northern Territories. Two of his predecessors — the late Zenko Suzuki and Mr. Yoshiro Mori — had used a helicopter, in 1981 and 2001, respectively. Mr. Koizumi, it is said, wanted to make a difference. A land trip was reportedly considered at first but was dropped out of concern for the Russians. That left a sea trip as the only option.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to visit Tokyo for talks with Mr. Koizumi early in 2005, the 150th anniversary of the signing of a Russo-Japanese treaty of amity. The Japanese government sees the summit meeting as a precious opportunity to discuss the territorial issue. Mr. Putin, who won re-election in the presidential race in March, is thought to be in a better position to negotiate.

Against this backdrop, Thursday’s tour can be taken as a signal of Tokyo’s resolve to negotiate a territorial settlement as a national priority. Indeed, it is likely that Mr. Koizumi is trying to build momentum at home in the leadup to Mr. Putin’s visit. It is also likely, considering the Liberal Democratic Party’s setback in July’s Upper House election, that he is anxious to score points on the diplomatic front.

Mr. Koizumi achieved high scores in dealing with the abduction issue between Japan and North Korea. He visited Pyongyang twice for face-to-face talks with Mr. Kim Jong Il, and obtained the release of five abductees and their family members. By contrast, he has made no visible moves to strengthen ties with Russia.

Diplomacy toward North Korea, however, has made little progress of late due to the seemingly fruitless search for other abductees as well as the continuing standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program. This may also explain why he is willing to step up diplomatic efforts toward Russia.

Whatever the motives, it is good that the government is beginning to pay greater attention to Tokyo-Moscow relations. This does not necessarily mean that territorial talks will produce results anytime soon. In fact, given Moscow’s tough position, no optimism is warranted. Russia formally acknowledged the existence of the territorial issue in the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, reversing its earlier stand that no such issue existed between the two nations. Since then, talks have been held on and off, but no substantial progress has been made.

At those meetings, the Japanese government made a number of specific proposals, such as drawing a tentative border north of the islands pending their handover. One proposal called for a “parallel negotiation formula” to deal with the smaller islands (Habomai and Shikotan) separately from the larger ones (Kunashiri and Etorofu). The 1956 declaration says Habomai and Shikotan will be returned to Japanese control.

The Russians rejected both proposals. In January of last year, however, the two governments signed a joint action plan that calls for a range of measures to promote mutual cooperation and exchanges, including closer political dialogue. The plan’s ultimate purpose is to resolve the territorial dispute and conclude a peace treaty.

Gradualism represents a realistic approach. The idea, of course, is to expand bilateral relations even as the territorial issue remains unresolved. This is not to say that the Northern Territories should take a back seat to economic and trade matters. The biggest thorn in the side of Russo-Japanese relations must be removed one way or another in order to achieve full normalization.

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