Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara temporarily recalled ambassador to Moscow Masaharu Kono to hear his report on the circumstances behind Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s Nov. 1 visit to Kunashiri Island and to demonstrate Japan’s displeasure over the visit. Kunashiri Island is one of four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that Japan collectively calls the Northern Territories.

Mr. Medvedev’s visit to the island, whose territorial jurisdiction has yet to be settled, is extremely regrettable. But just as regrettable is the failure of the Japanese government, especially the Foreign Ministry, to effectively deal with the visit, which was not unexpected.

Media reports suggest that the ministry did not have concrete information on Mr. Medvedev’s visit in advance. Even so, Mr. Medvedev said on Sept. 29 in Kamchatka that he would visit the Northern Territories without fail in the near future. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has said that he did not take Mr. Medvedev’s statement as meaning that he would actually visit the area. One wonders what kind of information and advice the Foreign Ministry gave Mr. Kan. There is also no indication that the Japanese government tried through diplomatic channels to discourage Mr. Medvedev from making such a controversial visit.

It appears that some recent leaders — both Japanese and Russian — are ignorant of the fact that past negotiations between the two nations over the territorial issue were extremely tough and sensitive and that officials in important posts should be extremely careful about what they do or don’t say.

For example, when former Prime Minister Taro Aso in May 2009 and Mr. Maehara in October 2009, respectively, mentioned Russia’s “illegal occupation” of the islands, they only made matters worse.

Careless statements, Mr. Kan’s failure to actively work to improve relations with Russia and Mr. Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri Island only serve to obstruct the development of trustful bilateral relations based on long-term agreements on the territorial issue that have been reached through strenuous effort by past Japanese and Russian leaders.

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