Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 31

Diplomatic jousting between Moscow and Tokyo over the four disputed South Kuril Islands took an unexpected turn last week when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used a public address to press Tokyo’s claim on the Russian controlled territories. In remarks made on February 7 during an official government rally devoted to the islands, Koizumi said that a peace treaty between Russia and Japan cannot be signed until the decades-old dispute is resolved and vowed to push for a return to Japan of all four islands. “We must make it clear that the islands belong to us,” Koizumi told hundreds of participants at a holiday ceremony celebrating the “Northern Territories.” That is what Japan calls the four islands, which lie immediately off of northeastern Hokkaido and were seized by Soviet troops at the close of World War II. Yoriko Kawaguchi, recently named by Koizumi to the foreign minister post, was also present at the rally. A number of ultra-rightists, waving banners and flags that called for a return of the islands to Japan, demonstrated outside the hall where Koizumi spoke.

As one Russian commentary observed, Koizumi’s remarks were notable for the fact that they dispensed with the usual, more diplomatic formulations regarding the islands dispute, and instead called directly for their return to Japan. The Prime Minister’s insistence that the signing of a Japanese-Russian peace treaty formally ending World War II could come only after a resolution of the territorial issue also appeared to mark some backpedaling toward a harder-line position by Tokyo. Since former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto first launched a diplomatic initiative in 1997 aimed at resolving differences between Moscow and Tokyo on the territorial issue, a move he hoped would open the way to the signing of a peace accord, both sides have tended to avoid categorical statements in their public comments on the dispute.

Koizumi’s remarks also appeared to rule out one possible diplomatic solution to the islands row that had become a focus of recent Russian-Japanese negotiations on the issue: the possible return of two of the four islands–namely Shikotan and Habomai–as part of an agreement that would also include the signing of a peace treaty. Indeed, it is unclear exactly what Tokyo’s position on this particular issue is at the moment. Kawaguchi had suggested during ministerial talks earlier this month with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Tokyo (see the Monitor, February 5), that the two sides had agreed to hold separate but parallel talks in mid-March, one set to be devoted to Shikotan and Habomai and the other to deal with the other two islands, Kunashir and Iturup. But Russian diplomatic sources have since denied that assertion, and Koizumi’s remarks would suggest that Japan is itself not interested in this sort of negotiation format.

Against this background, Moscow reacted testily last week to Koizumi’s February 7 speech. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman suggested that the Japanese prime minister’s remarks had done little more than to highlight the differences between Russia and Japan on the issue. A leading Russian lawmaker, meanwhile, was widely quoted as suggesting that Russia should consider responding by dispensing with negotiations on the territorial row altogether and instead simply ratifying a post-war treaty that ceded all four islands to Japan. State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Dmitry Rogozin was quoted as saying that “It’s hard for me to understand the Japanese mentality, but surely they must remember they lost the war and signed an unconditional surrender.”

Indeed, Koizumi’s remarks appear to have done little but undermine some of the good will that has been built up in recent years between the governments of the two countries, and to have sown some new uncertainty regarding Japan’s actual negotiating stance with regard to the islands dispute and the peace treaty. Given the serious political problems that the Japanese prime minister is suddenly facing domestically, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that his February 7 remarks were at least in part a political ploy aimed at shoring up his political support at home. But public sentiment in Russia is probably running as strongly against any return of the islands to Tokyo as it is running in favor of recovering the islands in Japan. That suggests politicizing the issue will do little to improve the chances of movement in negotiations. Whether Koizumi’s remarks indicate a substantive hardening in Japan’s negotiating posture–or whether they were entirely for domestic consumption–will become clearer only next month, when another round of talks between the two countries is scheduled (AP, Kyodo, Strana.ru, February 7; Japan Times, Bloomberg, Interfax, February 8; BBC, February 7-8).