Strange though it may seem, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who heads the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, is seeking support and advice from former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori of the No. 1 opposition Liberal Democratic Party in his bid to restructure Japanese diplomacy in general as well as improve Tokyo’s relations with Russia in particular.

Even though the two belong to rival political parties, Mori has long been known not only to understand Noda but also to serve as the current prime minister’s hidden mentor. What triggered Noda to approach Mori was the latter’s wide channel of communication with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is no wonder that one insider close to the prime minister has said that Noda was “deeply shocked” to hear that Mori will not run in the next general election and retire from the political arena.

Since coming to power in September last year, one of Noda’s top priorities has been to restore the nation’s diplomacy, which has suffered setbacks after the DPJ replaced the LDP as the governing party in 2009 through a number of blunders, committed first by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and then by his successor Naoto Kan.

And Noda, who replaced Kan, has endeavored to improve Japan’s relations with Russia as the first step for restoring Japan’s diplomacy.

The Japan-Russia relations have long been marred by the territorial dispute over four islands off Hokkaido — Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu — which were occupied by the Soviet Union shortly after the end of the Pacific war.

Signs of improvement first appeared when Prime Minister Mori met with President Putin at the 26th Group of Eight Summit held in Kyushu and Okinawa in July 2000 with Mori serving as chair.

In March 2001, the two met again in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, where they issued a statement confirming, among other things, the validity of the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which, while ending the state of war and restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries, stated that the Soviet Union would return Habomai and Shikotan to Japan upon the signing of a formal peace treaty. Tokyo has since based its Russian diplomacy on this Irkutsk statement.

Bilateral relations started deteriorating after Junichiro Koizumi succeeded Mori in 2001 and hit rock bottom during the Kan administration when Dmitry Medvedev, then president and now prime minister, visited Kunashiri in November 2010.

Just as Noda took office last fall, Putin announced his plan to return to the presidency after serving as prime minister for four years. Putin’s return was exactly what Noda had hoped for and he has since tried to take full advantage of Mori’s close ties with Putin.

Apparently, under Noda’s prodding, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba started visiting Mori frequently, successfully establishing a direct “hot line” of communication between Noda and Mori.

The relationship between Noda and Mori has become so intimate that some have even speculated that the bonds tying them were instrumental in leading the LDP and the No. 2 opposition Komeito to make a surprise move to support Noda’s call for raising the consumption tax rate — the issue on which the prime minister had long said he was “staking his political career.”

Even while Noda is seeking to improve Russo-Japanese diplomatic relations, his efforts are being hampered by divergent ways of thinking among the Foreign Ministry and a number of leading politicians.

As if to take advantage of such discord, Prime Minister Medvedev visited Kunashiri again July 3 — his second visit there since his November 2010 visit there, when he was president. The latest visit is interpreted by some quarters as a signal from Moscow that Russia has no intention of returning Kunashiri and Etorofu, which are not listed in the 1956 joint declaration as islands to be returned to Japan after a peace treaty.

Unlike a strong protest lodged by Japan against Russia after Medvedev’s first visit in 2010, which led Tokyo to recall its ambassador in Moscow, Tokyo made only a moderate protest in the aftermath of the latest visit.

This was followed by Russia’s invitation for Foreign Minister Genba to come to Moscow as a harbinger of a meeting between Prime Minister Noda and President Putin expected to take place in the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok during the summit session of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to start on Sept. 8.

Prior to flying to Moscow on July 27, Genba met with Mori to seek advice and convey Noda’s request that Mori meet with Putin and other Russian leaders as the Japanese government’s special envoy. The limit to what Noda can accomplish in the diplomatic arena has been shown by the very fact that he had to rely on Mori, who, despite having once headed the government, has already announced his intention to retire from politics.

Noda’s woes on the diplomatic front are not limited to the relations with Russia. Another headache for him and his administration is bitter opposition coming from various regions in Japan, especially where the U.S. maintains military bases, against the planned deployment of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which is known to have been involved in several accidents.

The government’s failure to persuade Washington to delay the shipment of the aircraft to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture was attributed by LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara to Noda’s appointment of Satoshi Morimoto as his defense minister. Morimoto, a former major in the Air Self-Defense Force who later became a diplomat and a university prosfessor, is not a member of the Diet.

Had the defense minister been an elected politician, Ishihara said, he could have appealed directly to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to delay the shipment, by telling him that the shipment of the aircraft at this time would affect the outcome of the Yamaguchi gubernatorial election July 29.

The Osprey aircraft are currently kept at Iwakuni air station, but mounting opposition to their deployment appears to be making it more difficult to move them to their ultimate destination — U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa.

Noda has been successful in maintaining good relations with the U.S. President Barack Obama. But his “yes-man diplomacy” without a definitive view has contributed to aggravating the Japan-U.S. relations.

A number of other crucial diplomatic issues await Noda, most notable being how to cope with the territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and whether to enter into formal negotiations on joining the Transpacific Strategic Economic Partnership agreement known as TPP.

With the haphazard manner in which the Noda regime pursues international relations, a fundamental restructuring of Japan’s diplomacy may be an unachievable dream. As a high-ranking LDP official lamented, “In our country, the Foreign Ministry exists but diplomacy does not.”

This is an abridged translation of an article from the August issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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