Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 84

In remarks to reporters made in Moscow back on April 6, the Japanese ambassador to Russia suggested that the resignation announcement of then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, which was expected to be followed by a reshuffling of the Japanese government, would have little or no impact on relations between Moscow and Tokyo. According to Ambassador Minoru Tamba, Japan’s policy toward Russia is grounded in “objective circumstances” and is therefore “not dependent on the ideas of one or another political figure” (Russian agencies, April 6).

Less than a month later, however, the surprise election of the maverick political leader Junichiro Koizumi as Japanese prime minister, and his naming of a nontraditional group of cabinet officials, raises at least the possibility that Russian-Japanese relations may face a bit of a bumpy transition period. This is true in part because Koizumi’s victory came at the expense of Ryutaro Hashimoto, a former prime minister who was a leading candidate to return to the post. It was Hashimoto who launched the diplomatic initiative in 1997 which led ultimately to a series of Russian-Japanese summit meetings, to closer relations more generally, and to the start of negotiations on the peace treaty and territorial issues. Hashimoto had maintained an unofficial role in Russian-Japanese relations since his ouster from power, moreover, and his efforts to sustain friendly ties probably made him Moscow’s preferred choice to assume the prime minister post.

But the more important reason that relations between Tokyo and Moscow may be in for a rough patch comes from indications that the new Koizumi government may be preparing to take a firmer line on the two related issues which have been the main impediment to fully normalized ties between the two countries–that is, the Kuril Islands territorial dispute and the drafting of a Russian-Japanese peace treaty. Indeed, that was the message conveyed on April 27 by both Koizumi, in his first news conference as prime minister, and newly named Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka. In his comments to reporters, Koizumi spoke of a Japanese willingness to be flexible on the territorial issue. But he then went on to assert that the “four islands are Japanese territory” and that Tokyo “must not create the misunderstanding that we will back down from this.” In her own comments, Tanaka emphasized the same determination to win back the four disputed Kuril Islands, which are called the “Northern Territories” in Japan. She appeared also to signal the intent of the current government to distance itself from the results in this area of the March 25 Irkutsk summit meeting between Mori and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Irkutsk summit was in no sense a breakthrough event (in part because it was clear at the time that Mori’s days as prime minister were numbered), but it did provide some potentially significant results. They included a new commitment by both countries both to continue peace treaty negotiations and to seek a resolution of the territorial row. That commitment was important because a previous deadline to achieve those twin goals had expired unfulfilled at the end of last year.

In addition, the two sides incorporated into their final communique–called the “Irkutsk Declaration”–a formal acceptance of the notion that a 1956 joint Soviet-Japanese declaration constitutes the “basic legal foundation” for future peace treaty talks. Under the 1956 declaration Moscow had offered to return two of the four disputed islands following the conclusion with Tokyo of a bilateral peace treaty ending World War II. Despite the fact that the current Russian and Japanese governments sharply differ in their interpretations of the 1956 agreement, Mori had reportedly pushed hard to have it included in the Irkutsk summit declaration. Reports have suggested that by doing so, the Japanese hoped ultimately to formalize the return of the two islands in question (Shikotan and the Habomai), and then move on to discuss the return to Japan of the other two disputed islands (Kunashir and Iturup). Moscow, by contrast, has said that the 1956 agreement puts Russia under no obligation to return all four of the islands, and has indicated pretty plainly that it has no intention of doing so (see the Monitor, March 28).

The new Koizumi government will presumably embrace the agreement negotiated by Mori and Putin to continue negotiations on the peace treaty and territorial row as well as the effort by Japanese governments since 1997 to seek better relations with Moscow more generally. But Tanaka spoke disparagingly of Mori’s approach to the territorial row. “The Mori administration’s basic diplomatic stand was very political,” she said. “Look at his handling of the four islands. It turned out to be misleading for the public.” She also made clear that she opposed the strategy of first seeking recovery of two of the islands and–in a reference to the approach taken by her late father, former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka–emphasized instead her conviction that Japan must aim for the return of all four of the Russian-held Islands. “We need to talk about the sovereignty issue of four islands by going back to the basics,” she was quoted as saying (Reuters, April 27; Japan Times, April 27-28; Asahi Shimbun, April 28).

What Tanaka did not make clear is how the new Japanese government intends to make this firmer policy on the Kuril Islands issue acceptable to Moscow. Indeed, it is probably too early to say whether Tanaka’s comments represent a real departure in Japanese policy toward the territorial issue, or whether they were intended primarily for domestic consumption to bolster popular support for the new government. It is worth noting, however, that to date the Kremlin has shown little willingness to make concessions on the territorial row, and that the 1956 agreement, for all its ambiguities, had emerged as the one compromise with at least the potential to break the long impasse. And that might permit the two countries to move forward on to the signing of a peace treaty and the launching of wider-ranging economic cooperation.