Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 150

Recently-named Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said on August 3 that he intends to pay an official visit to Russia sometime in November. The announcement was not unexpected. Obuchi’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, was himself scheduled to visit Moscow this fall. In recent weeks, moreover, both Tokyo and Moscow have made clear their determination not to let Hashimoto’s departure slow the diplomatic momentum that has developed between their two countries over the past year. Hashimoto met several times unofficially or informally with Boris Yeltsin in Russia, but Obuchi’s trip would be the first official visit by a Japanese Prime Minister to Moscow since 1973, when Kakuei Tanaka traveled to the Soviet Union.

A few of Obuchi’s August 3 remarks are unlikely to be well-received in Moscow, however. The Japanese Prime Minister, who was speaking during a meeting with grandchildren of former residents of the disputed Kuril Islands, said he intended during his November visit to press for a return of the islands to Japan. Obuchi described the situation around the islands as “regrettable” and “abnormal,” and said he wanted to see the islands returned to Japan “as soon as possible.” (Itar-Tass, Kyodo, August 3)

Moscow and Tokyo are currently seeking to draft and approve by the year 2000 a peace treaty that would formally end World War II and fully normalize Russian-Japanese relations. The issue of ownership over the four South Kuril Islands–called the Northern Territories in Japan–is the major obstacle to that effort. Indeed, progress in bilateral relations to date has been due in part to Hashimoto’s willingness to soft-pedal the territorial issue in order to focus on improving Russian-Japanese ties more broadly. Moscow will undoubtedly hope that Obuchi does the same.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov conferred by telephone yesterday with Masahiko Komura, the man just named to replace Obuchi as Japanese Foreign Minister. Komura reaffirmed the Japanese government’s intention to maintain a policy of pursuing improved relations with Russia. The two men also agreed that Komura would visit Moscow in September, when trade and economic issues are expected to dominate the agenda. Primakov and Komura are also to continue preparations for Obuchi’s November summit meeting with Yeltsin. (Russian agencies, Kyodo, August 4)