Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for the first time during the June Group of 20 summit in Mexico. When Noda proposed holding substantive talks over the Northern Territories dispute on the basis of bilateral accords and documents as well as of the principle of law and justice, Putin reportedly replied that in principle he was prepared to discuss the issue.
An episode of confusion on the part a Russian translator was disclosed when Noda said in a joking manner that he will present an Akita ken (meaning Akita dog in Japanese) from Akita ken (meaning Akita Prefecture in Japanese) to the dog-loving Russian president. Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba presented a 3-month-old Akita puppy to the Russian Presidential Executive Office upon arriving in Moscow in late July to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri Island, one of the four Northern Territories islands, for the second time shortly after the first Noda-Putting meeting took place without major hitches. Medvedev’s first visit to the island took place while he was serving as Russia’s president. If his latest visit was made in coordination with Putin, it must be said that it is an extremely crafty and tough diplomatic strategy toward Japan.
In addition, the initial statement after the summit from the Japanese side that Russia had agreed with Japan during the summit to “reactivate” talks on the Northern Territories proved to be false and highlighted Japan’s embarrassing diplomacy.
The fact that the summit meeting lacked substance raises the possibility that neither Medvedev nor Putin is seriously considering how to solve the Northern Territories issue. In fact, when Genba protested against Medvedev’s visit in a meeting of Japanese and Russian foreign ministers, Lavrov brushed it off and even implied that Russian high-ranking officials will continue to visit the four islands.
While observing recent developments in Japan-Russia relations from Akita, I experienced a shocking reality of the bilateral relationship. Akita International University, where I am serving as president, is a university of global standards and has many visitors from Japan and abroad. An observation team from Russia recently visited and when I entered a classroom to give a welcome speech, I found myself facing some 50 young Russians who were waiting to hear what I had to say.
After giving my speech, I asked my visitors where they were from. Among the replies were Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan — all part of the Northern Territories. These students came to Japan under the scheme of a visa-free exchange via Kunashiri. These young Russians were born and raised in the Northern Territories and naturally believe these islands are part of their homeland.
If we refer to Noda’s remarks on “law and justice” regarding the Northern Territories issue, the important point here is that after the Soviet Union won the war against Germany, it violated the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact and joined the war against Japan just before Japan surrendered and then illegally occupied Japanese territories.
The secret Yalta agreement of February 1945 among United States, Britain and the Soviet Union provided the grounds for the Soviet Union’s behavior.
In my classes, I make it a rule to show my students the whole English text of this agreement, which includes a clause that the Kuril Islands will be handed over to the Soviet Union. I teach my students how illegal and unjust this agreement is.
Even former U.S. President George H.W. Bush admitted that this agreement was “one of the greatest wrongs of history” when he attended the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the victory over Germany held in Latvia in May 2005.
When addressing the Northern Territories issue, the Japanese Foreign Ministry and Japanese experts on Russia should look back at the Yalta agreement and denounce Stalin’s policies toward Japan. Because Japan unfortunately lost the war, my opinion at that time on the return of the four northern islands was that while consistently insisting that Japan retains sovereignty over the islands, Japan first should achieve the return of Habomai and Shikotan islands, and then develop the four northern islands jointly with Russia.
But the Japanese Foreign Ministry has the tendency of being lenient toward China and strict toward Russia. This habit still lingers and has prevented the return of the Northern Territories.
Putin participated in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting held in Beijing in June and strengthened Russia’s relationship with China. He has been adopting a confrontational attitude toward the U.S. and Europe by inviting China and Central Asia countries to side with Russia on such issues as the Syrian civil war.
On the other hand, Russia’s concern is the population decrease in Siberia and Far East Russia and the influx of large numbers of illegal immigrants from China.
Putin’s connection with judo led to his strong interest in Japan. Through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum held in Vladivostok, Russia has shown strong interest toward the Asia Pacific region, including Japan. This can be seen through my university’s exchange programs with the Far Eastern Federal University located in Vladivostok. This expanding university and Moscow State University have many students who are eagerly studying Japanese to realize their dream of studying in Japan.
Even from this aspect, I believe that solving the Northern Territories dispute is an urgent issue.
Mineo Nakajima is president of Akita International University. The original Japanese version of this article appeared in Sankei Shimbun’s Aug.1 Seiron column.