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In a recent Sunday TV talk program, commentator, writer and former Japanese Cabinet minister Taiichi Sakaiya queried Foreign Minister Taro Aso about the recent incident involving the Russian capture of a Japanese fishing boat. The boat was caught poaching in Russian-controlled waters near the Habomai islands at the southern end of the Kurile Island chain to the east of Hokkaido.

One crew member was killed. The remaining three were taken into Russian custody. The Foreign Ministry was demanding their immediate release, claiming the boat was in waters over which Japan has legitimate claim.

Sakaiya said nothing about whether the claim was legitimate. He simply noted that China has managed to settle 32 territorial disputes with its neighbors. Meanwhile Japan’s territory settlements with neighbors totaled zero. The usually talkative Aso responded rather grimly by saying that Japan’s territory problems were different from China’s.

In one respect Aso is right. Many of China’s border disputes involved territory unfairly taken from China during its period of weakness. Even so, Beijing was willing to make large concessions to reach settlement, with Myanmar, India and Russia especially. Japan’s disputes involve mostly territories it lost or renounced following wartime defeat. Yet it is in no mood to compromise, even when its legal position is weak.

The recent poaching skirmish was a case in point. In its 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with the Allied powers, Japan renounced all right, claim and title to the Kurile Islands occupied by Soviet forces in 1945 as part of the Yalta agreements with the United States and Britain. In Diet questioning at the time it agreed reluctantly that the islands it had renounced included the South Kurile islands of Etorufu and Kunashiri close to Hokkaido.

At San Francisco, its claim even to the adjacent islands of Shikotan and the Habomai, which formerly have been part of Hokkaido rather than the Kuriles, had also been ignored. The only concession came from U.S. representative John Foster Dulles, who said that if there was some dispute over the Habomai, Japan could refer the matter to the International Court of Justice — an offer that Tokyo so far has failed to take up.

In 1955, however, Moscow rather surprisingly offered to return Shikotan and the Habomai islands to Japan when its own peace treaty with Japan was signed. But Tokyo, which at the time was only asking for Shikotan and the Habomai, suddenly upped its demand to include Etorufu and Kunashiri. It said that since all four island territories had traditionally been under Japanese control — the so-called Northern Territories — they should be returned together.

Negotiations have been deadlocked ever since. Moscow in 1956 formally confirmed its offer to return Shikotan and the Habomai islands once a peace treaty is signed. But Tokyo still refuses a peace treaty unless it also gets Etorofu and Kunashiri. Moscow says in effect that if Tokyo insists on all or nothing then for the time being at least it will have to be nothing.

Meanwhile, Tokyo continues to insist that it has to be all. The 1951 Diet statement admitting the renunciation of Etorufu and Kunashiri has been forgotten or papered over. Even reasonable proposals such as that by Hokkaido politician Muneo Suzuki, formerly a member of the Liberal Democratic Party — namely, that Japan should accept Shikotan and the Habomai islands and negotiate Etorofu and Kunashiri later — are ruled out automatically. The inevitable fishing disputes in Northern Territories waters are blamed on Moscow, as if Japan’s right to those territories and their waters is already established.

With the latest dispute, the logic becomes even more shaky. In 1998, in a bid to end poaching disputes, Tokyo agreed with Moscow to a median line of control between Hokkaido and the Habomai islands. No one really doubts that the recent poaching incident was on the Russian side of that line. Yet somehow the Russians are supposed to be guilty of attacking a Japanese boat in waters that are legitimately Japanese. But the 1998 agreement implies that the waters are not Japanese.

It gets worse. No one doubts that the poaching was for a species of crab specifically excluded from the list of sea products open to Japanese fishermen in the area; when pursued, the crew of the boat began busily throwing their crab catch back into the sea. Yet somehow the Russians are also supposed to be in the wrong for having tried to stop the poaching.

In a recent speech here, Masaru Sato, a former Foreign Ministry Russian expert, noted that when Moscow complained about poaching in the past Tokyo simply offered bland denials even when satellite photos were produced as evidence. Was Moscow supposed to tolerate poaching for ever?

True, for the first time in 50 years the Russian border patrol resorted to force to stop a poaching vessel from trying to escape. Much is being made of the fact that a man was killed as a result. But among the waves of indignation I have yet to see any mention of the satisfaction in Japan just five years ago when a North Korean boat intruding into Japanese waters was chased and sunk, with the loss of its entire 15 member crew.

True, that North Korean boat was probably trying to do a lot worse than steal crabs. But even so and as the old saying puts it, what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander, even if the goose is Japanese and the gander is not.

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