Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 25

In the negotiations between Russia and Japan over the future of the four South Kuril Islands seized by Soviet troops at the close of World War II, the cast of characters continues to change but the results remain largely the same. That, at least, seemed a reasonable conclusion to draw after Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s weekend visit to Tokyo. The visit should have been a significant one, given that it marked the first full-fledged ministerial conference between the two countries since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi assumed that office last spring. At the same time, it was also newly named Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi’s first major meeting with a foreign counterpart following her hasty appointment to the post on February 1.

Unfortunately, the confusion surrounding Kawaguchi’s appointment, which came only hours before Ivanov arrived in the Japanese capital, forced some last-minute reworking of the Russian minister’s itinerary and created some awkward moments for both sides. The sudden change atop Japan’s Foreign Ministry was, moreover, emblematic of the more general instability that has roiled Japan’s domestic political scene over the past several years and contributed to a decline in its international influence. This same political instability appears to be at least partly responsible for a loss of diplomatic momentum in Russian-Japanese relations and for the fact that the two countries remain deadlocked on the interrelated pair of issues central to their bilateral relationship: the dispute over control of the four South Kuril Islands and agreement on a peace treaty that would bring a formal end to World War II for Moscow and Tokyo. In a little over two years now there have been three occupants of the Japanese prime ministerial post and a total of four foreign ministers. In addition, Koizumi’s decision last week to dismiss the popular Makiko Tanaka from the Foreign Ministry post appears to have dealt a serious blow to the Japanese prime minister’s own popularity, and raised new questions about his survivability.

Ivanov therefore held talks with a prime minister who is looking increasingly like a lame duck and a newly named foreign minister who has little diplomatic experience and who some in Japan believe to lack the stature for the job. The chances for progress on key territorial and peace treaty issues were further undermined by the fact that Kawaguchi’s appointment appears to have resulted in yet another shift in Japan’s approach to the dispute. Given that this one came on the heels of similar ones that themselves followed the appointments of new foreign ministers, Moscow is likely to have little faith at present in the current government’s ability to negotiate with any authority on these important issues.