Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 123

A Japanese government official yesterday completed a two-day ground-breaking visit to two of the four Kuril Islands, which belong to Russia but are claimed by Japan. Muneo Suzuki, director of the Hokkaido Development Agency, is the first Japanese cabinet official to visit the disputed islands since they were seized by Soviet troops at the close of World War II. He was accompanied by a forty-member delegation made up of diplomats, reporters and various technical experts. Suzuki arrived June 24 on the island of Kunasir, and yesterday met with officials on Iturup, the most economically developed of the four disputed islands. Suzuki’s visit is the latest advance in a diplomatic initiative by Russia and Japan to improve and normalize relations poisoned since World War II by the island dispute. The visit is a direct result of two informal summit meetings held over the past year between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

Following talks with local officials yesterday, Suzuki told reporters that humanitarian aid to the disputed islands should be increased between now and Hashimoto’s scheduled visit to Russia this fall. He suggested that this was something Japan could do “in a flexible and broad manner,” and specified that Tokyo might help Russia by providing the know-how and a blueprint for infrastructure development projects. (Kyodo, June 25) A day earlier, during his visit to Kunasir, Suzuki announced that Japan would provide over US$3 million in aid for the reconstruction of a pier damaged in a 1994 earthquake. The Japanese delegation as whole, meanwhile, was said to be examining the situation on the island in preparation for the delivery by Tokyo of a diesel electric power station. It is intended to help alleviate energy shortages there. (Itar-Tass, June 24)

Reports of Suzuki’s trip said that the Japanese delegation had not raised the issue of control over the islands. Japan’s Kyodo news agency did report, however, that a local official on Iturup had said that residents of the island are no longer opposed to the return of the island to Japan. (Kyodo, June 25) The issue is a politically charged one. Nationalists in Japan have long sought the islands’ return to Japan. Hashimoto’s government appears to believe that the best chance for movement from Moscow on the issue is now–that is, before Russian parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 1999 and 2000. There is a loud and determined opposition in Russia to any concessions by the Kremlin on the territorial issue, however. Regional officials in Russia’s Far East have been especially active in this area. The Yeltsin government, whatever its inclination, would appear to have little room to maneuver.

Suzuki’s offer of greater aid to the islands is of interest. Japan has to date resisted Russian proposals for joint development of the islands in the belief that Tokyo’s participation in such a project would imply recognition of Russia’s ownership of the Kurils. Moscow, for its part, announced recently its own intention to increase aid to the economically depressed populations on the disputed islands. That move would seem to be aimed at ensuring that popular discontent with economic conditions on the islands does not turn into support for a change in their status.