Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 49

Russo-Japanese relations appear to have digressed back to the zero-sum, tit-for-tat, tenor that defined the relationship throughout the Cold War. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced on Thursday, March 10, that he would not attend the VE- Day celebrations to be held in Moscow this May. The announcement emerged as it became clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not be visiting Japan this spring for a summit meeting with Koizumi. The all-too-well known point of contention in the bilateral relationship is the “Northern Territories,” the four southernmost Kuril Islands.

In November 2004, in the wake of his successful territorial deal with the Chinese, Putin publicly offered Tokyo two of the disputed four islands, a return to the 1956 joint Soviet-Japanese declaration (see EDM, November 17, 2004). Speculation in Moscow was that he would be willing to make some sort of compromise over the other two islands, but Koizumi’s response to his offer was tepid at best.

In a January meeting in Moscow, Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov agreed that Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko and Lavrov would visit Japan in late February or early March, at which point the date of Putin’s visit would be finalized. But even these two visits have not taken place, despite the growing energy ties between the two countries. Khristenko plays a vital role in maintaining warm relations with officials from Japan’s energy sector. Japanese energy firms are now the largest investors in Sakhalin oil and gas projects, and last December the Russian government agreed on an oil pipeline to the Pacific port of Nakhodka to help feed Japan’s energy demands. Additionally, military ties between the two states have grown closer over the past decade and now include occasional small-scale, joint-training operations. China’s large shadow looms over the warming strategic relationship Moscow and Tokyo.

As for political relations, however, Russia’s Ambassador in Tokyo, Alexander Losyukov, admits that they are in the “worst state.” One Kremlin official was quoted as saying that Putin’s visit to Japan was unlikely to come off this year, unless Moscow witnesses a change in the stance of the Japanese government over the islands. The Japanese, meanwhile, are in no mood to make concessions.

Japan is currently embroiled in territorial disputes with three of its neighbors (China and South Korea, in addition to Russia). The dispute with China extends to Tokyo’s complicated relationship with Taiwan; many Japanese politicians maintain warm ties with their Taiwanese counterparts. Many of Japan’s neighbors are concerned with not only Japan’s stepped up security role in the U.S.-Japan alliance, but also with what they perceive as an emerging nationalistic foreign policy led by Foreign Minister Machimura, who is from the right wing of the already conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Japan’s worsening relationship with China should be a major impetus for improved strategic and political relations between Moscow and Tokyo. Yet the relationship remains bogged down due to domestic constraints and lingering issues from World War II.

On the 150th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Japan in February, both the upper and lower houses of the Japanese Diet issued a resolution calling for the return of the “Northern Territories.” While this is in and of itself unremarkable, the wording of the resolution caused many in Moscow to sit up and take notice. The resolution specifically names the four islands in dispute, but ends with the vague wording “and the other Northern Territories.” Until 1956 the Japanese government claimed the entire Kuril Archipelago (as had been agreed upon with Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century), as well as the southern half of Sakhalin Island. These claims were for the most part rescinded; only the Japanese Communist Party maintains them. In response to enquiries from Moscow, the Japanese Foreign Ministry insists that the wording is nothing new, and that the resolution has no binding force. Sources in the Japanese Diet claim that the wording was purposefully made vague to appease the Communists, so as to get a unanimous vote. Whether or not this is understood in Moscow is important, because misperceptions and misunderstandings have clouded the relationship for more than two centuries.

Japan feels besieged from all sides, as territorial issues and historical questions pertaining to World War II still haunt its citizens — hence the reluctance of the Japanese government to take part in ceremonies commemorating the victory of Soviet and Allied forces. Although until recently it appeared that the two governments would be willing to look past the territorial dispute in order to shore up strategic relations, it is now up for debate whether Moscow and Tokyo can find common ground.

(New York Times, February 13, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 22; Nikkei Shimbun, March 2; Vremya novosti, March 5; Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 7; Kommersant, March 9; Itar-Tass, March 10).