The Japan-Russia Forum, an arena for intellectual dialogue between Japan and Russia, recently met for the first time in 2 1/2 years.

This forum was originally launched for highly political reasons. The Northern Territories issue continues to cast a shadow over Japan-Russia relations, preventing the two countries from building a relationship of trust. It was thought, therefore, that opinion leaders from both countries should gather together to exchange opinions frankly and openly, in the hope that, as the mutual mistrust surrounding the Northern Territories issue gradually dissipated, participants might be able to assist in achieving a resolution to this issue and a breakthrough in Japan-Russia relations.

It is true that as a result of the frank and, at times, highly academic and specialized exchanges of opinions and intellectual discussions held in this forum, a kind of unity has gradually emerged between the two countries — or, at least, among the participants — in the form of a shared determination to address common issues together.

Outside this forum, however, Japan and Russia have not yet entirely dispelled their mutual mistrust and show few signs of cultivating a trust-based relationship. I would like to consider from a historical perspective why Japan and Russia have been unable to build a relationship of trust or to feel an affinity for each other.

Historically speaking, Japan and Russia have consistently focused on their differences, rarely paying attention to the things that unite them. The Japanese image of Russia that has taken shape over the years is that it belongs (albeit as a latecomer) to Western civilization, but that it has at times taken extremely backward, barbaric actions and tends to take a colonialistic, coercive attitude toward Asia. In Russia, meanwhile, Japan has been seen as a provocative, arrogant, Oriental country that is always rebelling against Russia and the West.

It is true that the two countries have now adjusted their images of each other considerably in the light of Russia’s democratization, Japan’s economic development and other factors. Whenever discussion turns to the territorial problem or other fundamental issues between the two countries, however, the things that separate Russia from Japan and vice versa tend to come to the fore. It is surely now time for Japan and Russia to look back at their modern history and pay more attention to their common ground.

During its modernization, Russia faced numerous tribulations in its efforts to emulate Western Europe. At the same time it was in the process of assimilating and confronting Western civilization, it was invaded from the West and managed to repel this invasion. Similarly, while Japan absorbed and assimilated Western civilization of its own volition, it hit out fiercely at Western colonialism, which it resisted by becoming a colonial power itself.

Put another way, Russia has been both Western and not Western, while Japan has been both Asian and not Asian. This symbolizes the troubled paths that the two countries traveled on the road to modernization. It also shows that, in terms of historical experiences, Japan and Russia have a great deal in common.

In this sense, there is a need for Russia to look with its own eyes at its record of aggression and invasion in Asia. As a latecomer to Western civilization, Russia experienced the pain of Westernization while carrying out acts of aggression in Asia.

Japan, too, although geographically an Asian country, managed to defend its independence and develop, despite being treated in an invasive, aggressive, colonialist way by the West as it struggled to Westernize and modernize, and invaded Asia in the process.

In other words, both Japan and Russia achieved Westernization while repelling and confronting Western colonialism, and both carried out acts of aggression against Asia.

When considering this historical common ground, it is not appropriate for Russia and Japan to stress only the offenses perpetrated by the other side. If the two countries focus only on the other’s status as an aggressor, the Russian side is liable to insist that it was a victim of Japanese imperialism, as in the Russo-Japanese War and the dispatch of Japanese troops to Siberia, while the Japanese side is liable to highlight the extensive damage it suffered at Russian hands, such as the Soviet Union’s advance into Manchuria and entry into World War II in violation of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact. It will be hard for Japan and Russia to build a relationship of trust as long as both countries view the other as an aggressor.

It is surely preferable to take a step back and accept that Japan was, in a sense, a victim of Western colonialism and that, in a similar sense, Russia, too, was a victim. Japan and Russia should also pay more attention to the fact that they share a great deal of common ground, in that they both suffered in the process of modernizing and Westernizing.

This means focusing on the “Asian-ness” that both Russia and Japan possess. In catching up with other European countries, Russia discarded Asian aspects, and in developing its economy, Japan, too, discarded Asian traditions as it pursued a course of datsua-nyuo, or “leaving Asia and joining Europe.”

Yet, despite this history, both Russia and Japan continue to possess Asian-ness, and this is an area in which the two countries should be able to find some common ground.

The litmus test for whether Russia is accepted as a true member of the Asia-Pacific community of nations is whether it gives the Asian and Western elements within itself appropriate status. Japan, meanwhile, must rethink its view of Russia in an Asian context. This is a way for Japan and Russia to progress from distrust to trust and from trust to a genuinely close relationship.