The Japan-Russia talks on the Northern Territories are deadlocked. Shortly after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union seized four islands or islet clusters northeast of Hokkaido — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai. In 1993, the two nations issued a joint statement calling for the conclusion of a peace treaty once the territorial claims involving the “northern four islands” were settled. The Tokyo Declaration, as the statement is known, provides the basis for the talks.

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently expressed a desire to reach a final settlement in which only Shikotan and Habomai would be handed over, citing the 1956 Japan-Soviet communique as a supporting precedent. In clashing head-on over this issue earlier this month, the Japanese and Russian foreign ministers failed to fix a date for Putin to visit Japan this year.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1855 Japan-Russia Amity Treaty, which established the border — between Urup at the southern tip of the Kuril Islands and Etorofu, the northernmost of the four islands. This year is also the centennial of the Russo-Japanese War. Whether the two nations can become “strategic partners” depends on whether Russia returns to the negotiating table under the Tokyo Declaration.

The dispute over the Northern Territories is a legacy from World War II. On Aug. 8, 1945, when Japan’s surrender was imminent following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in disregard of the still-valid Japan-Soviet neutrality pact. Three days after the war ended, Soviet troops began occupying the Kuril Islands, which then belonged to Japan, and by Sept. 5 completed the occupation of the four islands now in dispute.

In the 1956 communique, which opened the way for the normalization of bilateral relations, the Soviet Union agreed to return Shikotan and Habomai following the conclusion of a peace treaty. With the territorial talks making little headway due to Moscow’s rejection of Tokyo’s demand for the return of all four islands, the two sides agreed to establish diplomatic relations first.

At a press conference in December, Putin said that since Japan had ratified the 1956 communique it is “incomprehensible that Japan is now seeking the return of the four islands.” He argued that the territorial dispute should be settled with the handover of Shikotan and Habomai.

During negotiations leading up to normalization, however, Japan never agreed to the “two-islands” formula. If it had fully accepted such a compromise, the dispute would have been settled and a peace treaty ending the technical state of war between Japan and the Soviet Union would have been concluded by now.

The Putin statement also represents a significant departure from the Tokyo Declaration, which was signed in Tokyo in 1993 — following the collapse of the Soviet Union — at a meeting between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa.

That landmark document mentions all four islands by name, states that negotiations will be conducted to settle the claims on them and that talks on a peace treaty will be held on the basis of historical and legal facts, other written agreements between the two nations and the principles of law and justice.

In 2001, Putin and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori signed a statement in Irkutsk defining the 1956 communique as the basic legal document that provides the “starting point” for the process of peace-treaty negotiations. The two leaders also agreed that the sovereignty issue involving the four islands should be resolved “on the basis of the Tokyo Declaration.”

Putin’s “two islands” comment contradicts that statement. The comment is seen by some as an attempt to sound out Russian public opinion following last October’s Russo-Chinese border agreement. Others see it as a trial balloon to test Japanese opinion. Whatever the motives, Putin cannot expect to gain Japanese understanding as long as he takes a position far removed from the official document that he himself signed.

Prospects for Japanese-Russian negotiations improved, or so it appeared, in 1997 when Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Yeltsin agreed that the two nations should “do their utmost to conclude a peace treaty by 2000.” That agreement, however, never materialized because of political events in Russia.

Japan is also to blame for the deadlock, according to Aoyama Gakuin University professor Shigeki Hakamada, who is well-versed in Russian affairs. Japan “created a misunderstanding on the Russian side” by sending the wrong signal that it was shifting its negotiating position, he says in the latest issue of the foreign affairs magazine “Gaiko Foramu” (Foreign Policy Forum).

Hakamada gives two examples of how “misunderstandings” occurred:

The signals sent by some Japanese politicians and diplomats stressing the 1956 communique created an erroneous perception in Russia that Tokyo was changing its position on the treaty talks.

In connection with the Japan-Russia action plan adopted in January 2003 at a meeting between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Putin, the Japanese side made an overture that might have led the Russians to believe that Japan had decided to promote full economic cooperation with Russia by shelving the territorial issue.

Japan must stick to its basic position in the territorial talks. At stake is the fundamental issue of sovereignty. Some politicians, perhaps driven partly by a desire to make their mark in history, may be looking for a quick breakthrough, but they must avoid any compromise that would sacrifice Japan’s legitimate claim to the four islands.

North Korea and Russia present a major diplomatic challenge for Koizumi. Japan’s relations with both nations remain abnormal, 60 years after the end of World War II. Correcting this situation demands a sense of mission, a determination to build a new order in Asia and a political capacity to conduct diplomacy under a long-term strategy.

Putin, in his annual message to the nation last May, described Japan, along with the United States, China and India, as a “major partner” and declared that Russia would “develop political and economic dialogues.” And in a meeting with Koizumi the following month, Putin emphasized the “strategic significance” of Japan-Russia relations.

The challenge for Koizumi is to persuade Putin that an amicable settlement of the territorial dispute will bring “strategic benefits” to Russia.

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