Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 89

According to Japanese news accounts, the well-publicized corruption scandals ripping apart the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi have also had a devastating effect on Japanese-Russian relations and left long-standing negotiations between the two countries over the disputed Kuril Islands and a related peace treaty agreement in shreds. At the heart of these developments are the corruption charges that earlier this year brought about the political demise of Muneo Suzuki, one of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party’s most powerful backroom politicians and a man who, as it turned out, was deeply involved in the formulation of Japanese foreign policy toward Russia. Investigations into Suzuki’s dealings with Russia and with respect to Japanese policy toward Moscow, moreover, have also brought disgrace upon a handful of other top Japanese Foreign Ministry officials who, like Suzuki, were intimately involved with policy toward Russia. The result on the Japanese side, according to Japanese sources, is paralysis in Tokyo with respect to Russia policy. On the Russian side, not surprisingly, it has been a new pessimism about the prospects for future relations and a sense of disillusionment with the current Japanese government.

The corrosive effect of Japan’s political turmoil on Japanese-Russian relations burst into the open this past March, when Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov publicly repudiated claims that Moscow and Tokyo had agreed to a so-called “two-track” policy in resolving their most serious diplomatic dispute–over ownership of the four Russian-controlled South Kuril Islands (see the Monitor, March 20). Under the dual-track approach, the two countries were reportedly prepared to consider a solution under which Russia would agree to return the two smaller of the disputed islands–Shikotan and the Habomai–as a prelude to signing a peace treaty, and negotiations would continue separately over the fate of the other two islands–Kunashir and Iturup.

That formulation, which was based on a 1956 Soviet-Japanese joint declaration, was first proposed in September 2000 by Russian President Vladimir Putin during talks with then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. Suzuki, however, ultimately embraced it. It was also pushed within the Japanese Foreign Ministry by the powerful Japanese politico and several like-minded senior ministry officials. According to recent reports, this proved problematic in several ways. For one, Suzuki appeared determined to push the two-track approach because it offered him the chance to win lucrative government-funded development projects on one of the disputed islands (Kunashir). Indeed, Suzuki was later implicated in a bid-rigging scam for projects on the disputed islands that favored construction firms from his home district. At the same time, top Foreign Ministry officials later came to charge that this pursuit of personal advantage had distorted Japanese policy on the island dispute. They claimed that the two-track approach was flawed from the start because it offered little prospect of delivering on what has been Japan’s bottom line position regarding the Kuril Islands talks since they began in 1997–the return of all four disputed islands to Japanese sovereignty.

The latest reverberations of Tokyo’s corruption scandals came last month, when Japan’s ambassadors to the Netherlands and Kazakhstan, Kazuhiko Togo and Toshimitsu Mori, respectively, were also dismissed from diplomatic service for their involvement with Suzuki’s plans. The departure of Togo, who has been described as one of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s leading experts on Russia, appears in particular to have disturbed Moscow. According to an Itar-Tass report filed from Tokyo (and summarized by the Japan Times), Russian diplomats believe that Togo’s sacking “signals an end to a whole chapter” in improved Japanese-Russian relations. The same report claimed that “bilateral contacts [between Russia and Japan] are past their heyday, when Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Russian President Vladimir Putin had six meetings over a period as short as twelve months.”

Against this unpromising background, it is unclear what will happen next for Russia and Japan. At present, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to visit Japan at some point later this year, but those visits have not been formally scheduled. It remains to be seen whether they will be. Meanwhile, a report out of Moscow early last month suggested that the Japanese might choose to terminate the activities of a joint committee tasked with overseeing the delivery of Japanese aid to the Russian inhabitants of the Kuril Islands. Late last month Japanese diplomats issued a statement in Moscow denying that current Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi is planning to block aid to the four islands. The same statement also contained an unusual declaration stating that Tokyo does not intend to change its foreign policy toward Russia. But even if that proves to be the case (and some Russian commentators have suggested it will not), relations between the two countries will likely go nowhere fast until Japan’s domestic turmoil comes to an end and there is a leader with some authority in Tokyo with whom Moscow can productively negotiate (Japan Times, April 16, 28, May 2; Japan Today, April 26; Asahi News, April 10; Kyodo, May 1; Interfax, April 3).