Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says that in his May 6 talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it was agreed that a "new approach" was needed for solving the territorial dispute that has blocked a peace treaty between the two countries for just on 60 years. One wonders what that "new approach" could possibly be, and whether it would be accepted by hardliners in Japan's Foreign Ministry. The last time a new approach was tried, back in 2000-2001, the three Japanese negotiators were roundly condemned as traitors by the Japanese right wing. Two of these negotiators ended up in jail or detention.

The compromise the negotiators had sought is often described as "two islands plus alpha." The "two islands" to be returned to Japan out of the four that were occupied by Soviet troops in the final stages of World War II were the smaller islands of Shikotan and the Habomai group. The Russian side describes them as the lesser Kurils, but historically they were always part of Hokkaido. The "plus alpha" was to be some concession — joint development perhaps leading to joint ownership — over the two much larger islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri.

For the Foreign Ministry hawks in Tokyo, any concession that did not recognize ultimate and complete Japanese sovereignty over the two larger islands was unacceptable. But for the Russian side any concession that impinged on Russian sovereignty over those islands now or in the future was unacceptable. The Japanese negotiators were guilty of trying to find some common ground between the two unacceptables.