Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 86

Comments by Japan’s foreign minister this week suggest that Japan’s political leadership may be counting on improved relations with Russia–and especially on progress in the Kuril Islands territorial dispute–to help Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s government surmount increasingly serious political problems at home. Speaking to reporters during a visit to Malaysia on May 3, Japanese Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi said that the drafting of a Russian-Japanese peace treaty and the related resolution of the Kuril Islands dispute is the most important issue facing the Japanese government. He also suggested that Hashimoto, who is under fire at home for Japan’s continuing economic difficulties, should remain in office to see through efforts by the two countries to conclude a peace treaty. “It would be a problem if [treaty negotiations] were broken off” as a result of Hashimoto or Yeltsin leaving office, Obuchi was quoted as saying. (Kyodo, May 3)

In comments made following his return to Tokyo yesterday, Obuchi again turned to the treaty talks with Russia. He voiced the hope that two upcoming summit meetings between Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin would resolve the territorial dispute and yield a Russian-Japanese peace treaty. The scheduling of those two meetings was agreed upon at the last Russian-Japanese summit, held in the Japanese resort city of Kawana on April 18-19. At their first summit meeting, held last fall in Krasnoyarsk, Yeltsin and Hashimoto agreed to intensify efforts to conclude a peace treaty by the year 2000. Obuchi reportedly made it clear in his comments yesterday that Tokyo hopes to resolve the territorial dispute fully during a projected visit by Yeltsin to Japan next year. (Itar-Tass, May 4)

Obuchi’s remarks seemed to indicate that, despite the occasional official statement to the contrary, Japan continues to link the signing of a peace treaty to an agreement on the Kuril Islands dispute. But Tokyo’s hopes for a quick decision mandating the return of the islands to Japan seem likely to be frustrated. Moscow has tended to decouple the territorial issue from the peace treaty negotiations, and has shown no inclination to make concessions on the islands. An initiative from Hashimoto to redraw the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion that would ultimately return the four disputed Kuril Islands to Japan was rebuffed by Russian leaders. That proposal is expected to be on the agenda when Russian and Japanese officials meet this week for a new round of talks on a peace treaty.