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The long-standing problem of the Northern Territories has been weighing heavily on relations between Japan and Russia. Summit talks between the two countries in the past have lifted hopes for a new development toward a settlement. Each time, though, hopes waned in due course because a new Soviet or Russian leader apparently thought that keeping a predecessor’s commitment was not important.

Still, Japan — both the government and people — has not given up placing strong hopes in a Russian leader’s visit to Tokyo for talks with Japanese leaders. The reason is simple: A breakthrough in matters of national sovereignty, such as a territorial dispute or border demarcation, can be found basically through the political decisions of a national leader.

That is why Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Japan this week drew interest here. In talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, he confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Japan by yearend.

In response to Japan’s consistent policy of seeking to resolve the sovereignty of the four northern islands (Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and the Habomai islets) — which are indigenous Japanese territory — before concluding a peace treaty, the administration of President Putin has bolstered its stance of seeking a final solution through the return of just two islands, Shikotan and Habomai. The Putin administration holds fast to the position that the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which stipulated the return of the two islands after the conclusion of a peace treaty, is the sole basis for a settlement and that Japan’s demand for the return of all four islands has no grounds in international law. Moscow has tended to regard the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, which clarified that the problem concerned the return of four islands, as merely a political declaration.

However, that declaration is an official document signed by then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Furthermore, in 1997, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Yeltsin agreed to make the utmost efforts to conclude a peace treaty by 2000 on the basis of the Tokyo Declaration. President Putin himself confirmed this policy in talks with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in 2001.

Russia also makes a very convenient interpretation of the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration. In talks from 1955 to 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union could not reach agreement on the Northern Territories problem, apart from the two islands of Shikotan and Habomai, so they agreed first of all to sign a joint declaration announcing an end to the state of war and the restoration of diplomatic ties. They agreed that the two islands would be returned to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty and that peace treaty negotiations would continue. It is not written anywhere that the return of the two islands represents a total settlement of the problem.

The negotiated return of the territories, which were illegally occupied by the Soviet Union soon after the end of World War II, will not be easy. Recently, however, there have been some developments that deserve attention. In the fall of last year, for example, Russia reached agreement with China on the demarcation of an eastern border, a dispute that had dragged on for four decades. Deliberations on approval of the agreement are now taking place in the Russian parliament. And in January, Russia signed a border demarcation document with Kazakstan. The historical background might be different, but Japan also should tenaciously continue urging a settlement.

Apart from the territorial issue, bilateral relations between Japan and Russia have been developing steadily. In 2004, bilateral trade expanded by about 50 percent over the previous year to reach around $9 billion. Exports of automobiles and other products from Japan are sharply increasing. As for the construction of an oil pipeline from East Siberia to the Far East, over which Japan and China have been competing, the Russian government has decided to start work on the Pacific route in accordance with Japan’s proposal.

On the basis of the Japan-Russia Action Plan agreed between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Putin during the former’s visit to Russia in 2003, cultural exchange, personnel exchange as well as political and defense dialogues between the two countries are on the rise.

Even if a spectacular leap forward in the territorial problem cannot be expected, it is important to explore common interests through economic cooperation and strengthened exchange to foster mutual confidence, which is the essential premise for a settlement to the territorial problem.

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