Foreign Minister Taro Aso held separate meetings with his South Korean and Chinese counterparts earlier this week — the first such get-together in five months and one year, respectively. Although he managed to clinch agreements on some bilateral issues, Japan’s relations with its closest neighbors remain far from normal.

Mr. Aso and South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon reached an agreement that the two countries will hold two-day talks in mid-June on the demarcation of their exclusive economic zones around disputed islets in the Sea of Japan known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea. The talks started in 1996 but were called off in 2000.

An agreement reached between Mr. Aso and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing calls for the acceleration of talks at the bureau-chief level to solve the gas and oil development dispute in the East China Sea. In a May 18 meeting, the two sides agreed to arrange the next round of talks as soon as possible, although Japan and China rejected each other’s proposal for joint development of gas fields. As in the case of the Tokyo-Seoul dispute in the Sea of Japan, the two countries disagree over the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones. The disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China also lie in this area.

No optimism is warranted for the upcoming Tokyo-Seoul and Tokyo-Beijing talks because they involve territorial issues and lucrative economic interests. South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun fiercely criticized Japan in April over the Takeshima dispute. In a special statement broadcast live, Mr. Roh said, “To our people, Dokdo is a symbol of restoring complete sovereignty.” He even said Japan’s claim to the islets is “an act of justifying its war of aggression and killings, and history of crimes that include exploitation for 40 years, torture, imprisonment, a forced draft and even ‘comfort women.’ ” As both talks will be fraught with difficulty, the three governments must strive all the more to remain level-headed.

It is clear that the problem of “historical perception” brought to the fore by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine — a symbol of Japanese militarism — is hindering Japan’s development of good relations with China and South Korea.

In his meeting with Mr. Ban, Mr. Aso said, “I hope this will be a chance for the two countries to return to a path of working toward future-oriented relations.” Mr. Aso and Mr. Li endorsed the idea that the East China Sea should be made a “sea of cooperation.” But Mr. Aso’s hope for improved relations with China and South Korea will lack a solid basis as long as Japan fails to takes the initiative in solving the Yasukuni issue.

Mr. Ban conveyed a veiled request that Mr. Koizumi stop visiting the shrine, which enshrines not only Japan’s 2.46 million war dead — even including a number of Koreans and Taiwanese — but also 14 class-A war criminals. The South Korean foreign minister pointed out that Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits are making bilateral relations difficult and said, “I would like to ask for a wise approach to be taken so that (the Yasukuni issue) will not impose any more burden on Korea-Japan relations.” Mr. Li told Mr. Aso that the Yasukuni visits “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and also have damaged the basis of political ties between the two countries.”

Mr. Aso was only able to repeat Japan’s position on the issue to Mr. Ban and Mr. Li, which is based on Mr. Koizumi’s explanation that the visits to the shrine were to pay respect to the war dead and to show Koizumi’s resolve that Japan never go to war again. Stating how he will handle the question of his own Yasukuni visits in the future, the foreign minister, regarded as a candidate to succeed Mr. Koizumi as prime minister later this year, said that he will make a decision based on his personal feelings and his public role. But as long as the repetition of Mr. Koizumi’s position is all the Japanese government can offer concerning the Yasukuni issue, Japan’s relations with China and South Korea will remain cool.

The deadlock needs to be broken, and to do so it is indispensable that Mr. Koizumi foster a relationship of trust with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts through summit diplomacy. Although Mr. Aso asked the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers to hold such meetings, neither gave a clear and favorable answer. Apparently both China and South Korea feel it’s impossible to hold summit talks with Mr. Koizumi. If Mr. Koizumi obstinately visits Yasukuni again before his retirement in September, it will only further aggravate the situation.

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