Category Archives: Russia

Japan Updates for the Last Two Months of 2016 (1/3)

Happy New Year 2017.

Many things occurred while I suspended the blog since November 11 2016. Let me briefly look back the major movements related to Japan.

On foreign policy, the biggest event was the Japan-Russo summit on December 15 and 16. The result was what I had expected in this blog. The festival is over, after all. The best Japan can do from now on is to slow down as much as possible the implementation of the twelve documents signed between the two governments. There should be no problem as the documents are not positioned as the international agreements that bind the parties concerned.

According to the poll, it has become clear that more and more Japanese people accepts flexible approach rather than sticking to “the immediate return of all of the four islands.” But it seems that the minimum results they can compromise would be “the return of the two islands,” to which the Russians will never agree. As a consequence, the realistic strategies for the future Japanese government would be trying to settle with “the return of less than the two islands,” or accepting the abandonment of the four islands in exchange for the compensation from Russia. However, I cannot conceive of any collateral Moscow can offer, big enough for Tokyo to make a domestically unpopular decision. Neither Japan suffers from the present Japan-Russo relationship or the lack of a peace treaty. My recommendation for the Northern Territories settlement: Leave it alone.

The Japan-Russo Northern Territories Negotiation: V. Where Will the Talk End Up?

At the end of this series, let us think about the landing point of the negotiation on Northern Territories between Abe and Putin.

First of all, it is not realistic at all to expect Putin to hand over the four islands back to Japan. Whatever economic assistance the Japanese government offers, or whatever phased scheme it creates, the recovery of the four islands is a daydream. I already explained the reasons in the Part III.

What about “the two plus something”? Because the Soviet Union once agreed to return Shikotan and Habomais in Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956, not a few Japanese believe or want to believe that Japan’s territorial right on the two islands is guaranteed. They go on to advocate that Moscow should add more concessions on the return of the two small islands if Japan compromises to give up the recovery of all the four islands. More specifically, some demand the return of three islands, adding either Etorofu or Kunashiri to Shikotan and Habomais. Others insist on equally dividing the acreage of the four islands, or Japan taking Shikotan, Habomais, Kunashiri and a quarter of Etorofu. But these are also wishful thinking. Kunashiri and Etorofu are simply too important for Moscow to abandon. Putin has repeatedly expressed his will to finally resolve the territorial issue along with the Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration of 1956, meaning Kunashiri and Etorofu should be excluded from the negotiation.

Is the recovery of the two islands of Shikotan and Habomais guaranteed minimum? I guess that is the best Japan can realistically hope for, but still never guaranteed. The Russians would not regard the sovereignty of Shikotan and Habomais as Japan’s vested interests. Putin is more likely to attempt making a deal at “the two minus something.” For example, Russia would agree to return only Habomais where few people inhabit. Or it may want to prolong the actual transfer of Shikotan and Habomais, while shelving off the issue of attribution of Kunashiri and Etorofu by establishing a consultation mechanism between Japan and Russia. It goes without saying that Moscow would demand large-scale economic cooperation from Japan as a consideration for “the two minus something.”

One interesting idea is “condominium” or the joint sovereignty that Nikkei newspaper reported on October 17. Although relatively rare, we find some instances of condominium elsewhere. For example, Pheasant Island has been a condominium of France and Spain since 1659. To name a few in the history, Cyprus from 688 to 965 by the Byzantine Emperors and the Arab Caliphs, Sudan from 1899 to 1956 by the U.K. and Egypt, and New Hebrides from 1906 to 1980 by France and Britain before attaining independence as the Republic of Vanuatu.

Compare with the direct transfer of the sovereignty, the notion of condominium will be acceptable for Russia. But it is too soon to expect that condominium works for the Northern Territories. Russia or the Soviet Union has effectively governed the four islands for more than seven decades, while Japanese residents have been deported since the Soviet invasion in 1945. The Russian military has its facilities in Kunashiri and Etorofu. Kremlin would find little incentive to agree to the condominium.

What’s more, over sixteen thousand Russians who live in the three islands will not likely to accept the condominium with Japan. Recall the case of Gibraltar where the British and the Spanish governments reached a basic agreement to introduce a condominium in 2002. The 98 percent of the residents of Gibraltar rejected it by referendum, and the agreement between the two governments became a piece of paper. As a “democratic” president of Russia, Putin will not be able to force the islanders to accept the unilateral decision made by the government, either. From the same reason, possibility of admitting the right of residence to Russian islanders, while returning the sovereignty to Japan, will be also slim.

The best scenario for Russia is to receive economic cooperation from Japan without making substantial concessions in the territorial dispute. Valentina Matviyenko, the head of Russia’s upper chamber of parliament and one of the aides of Putin, stated on November 1 that she welcomes Russo-Japanese joint economic activities in the South Kuril Islands within the Russian legal framework. Of course, Abe will lose face if that is the only outcome of the summit meeting with Putin.

Agreeing to the conclusion of a peace treaty within a definite period of time and a considerable economic cooperation, together with cosmetic reference to the possibility of returning some of the Northern Territories, will be one of the worst scenarios for Prime Minister Abe. This landing point will be permissible when Japan and Russia fail to reach a substantial agreement on the territorial issue, and still need to announce an “outcome.” As I questioned earlier, however, the conclusion of a peace treaty itself is only a nominal fruit for Japan.


There has been a speculation that Abe is trying to dissolve the Diet by appealing a historical achievement in the territorial negotiation with Russia. The more Abe thirsts for an exploit in the December summit, the larger is the room for Putin to maneuver the deal. We all know that Abe’s personal gain in the context of general election is never identical to an interest of Japan.

The Japan-Russo Northern Territories Negotiation: II. Weak Intervention by the United States

Second, the hindrance to the Japan-Russo negotiation from the United States has been weak this time, and Abe seems to be insensitive to it. Recall the Japan-Soviet negotiation in the mid-1950s under Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama. The necessity to improve the relationship with the Soviet Union as it vetoed Japan’s membership in the United Nations mainly drove the government of Japan. Then U.S. government intervened strongly against it.

Tokyo wanted to realize the return of four islands and conclude a Peace Treaty with Moscow. But the State Department was alarmed. Drawing a border between Japan and the Soviet Union in the treaty meant that Japan admitted Russian sovereignty over the rest of Kuril Islands and South Sakhalin, which the United States never admitted. At the height of Cold War, any gain for Moscow was regarded as a loss for Washington. Americans were worried about the domino effects on the issues such as the status of Taiwan and the approval of the People’s Republic of China. The State Department was also nervous if the solution of the Northern Territories may ignite an irredentism in Japan over Okinawa and Ogasawara Islands.

In the process of the negotiation, Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu thought that the GOJ should compromise with the return of two islands (Shikotan and Habomais), and had better conclude a peace treaty. In the summer of 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles met Shigemitsu in London and delivered a warning known as “intimidation by Dulles.” He said that the United States will forever stay in Okinawa if the Japanese government admits the Soviet Union full sovereignty over the (rest of) Kuril Islands. On September 9, Dulles told Shigemitsu that the U.S. government considered the four islands, not the two, should be returned to Japan. It was not the advice for the sake of Japan. The State Department reached the conclusion after being convinced that Etorofu/Itrup and Kunashiri/Kunashir were too important for the Soviet Union to give up from the military points of views. In effect, it was the advice to prohibit Japan’s concession.

Prime Minister Hatoyama finally visited Moscow and signed a Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration on October 19, 1956. As a result, Japan and the Soviet Union resumed diplomatic relations. Moscow agreed to transfer Shikotan and Habomais to Japan after concluding the Peace Treaty. Nothing was mentioned about Etorofu/Itrup and Kunashiri/Kunashir. No borderline was drawn between the two countries and two islands of Shikotan and Habomais have never been returned to Japan because the treaty has not ever concluded.

The relationship between the United States and Russia has been deteriorated for the last decade, especially after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.The Obama administration is not very happy with Abe’s initiative to make a big deal with Putin. But the U.S. administration today is not so serious as to intimidate Japan. The Cold War is over, and current threat from Russia is no more vital.

For his part, Abe does not seem to care much about Washington’s uneasiness. The nature of so called “New Cold War” is bilateral, not global. Japan does not really see material loss if it neglects American anxiety.

Personal character of Abe also facilitates a deviation from the United States. He emphasizes the importance of Japan-U.S. alliance in the context of dealing the threat from China and North Korea. But Abe is fundamentally a nationalist. He visited the Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, 2013, causing to lose face of Vice President Joe Biden. As for the matters related to Russia, Abe has been surprisingly stubborn. When the U.S. president was trying to launch a military strike on Syria in order to punish its use of chemical weapons in the late summer of 2013, he avoided committing himself to support Obama, tacitly siding with Putin. Abe’s persistence in the resolution of the Northern Territories issues was basically intact even when Russia annexed Crimea. Although the United States and the EU posed sanctions on Russia and urged Japan to follow, the Japanese government responded only nominally.

The Japan-Russo Northern Territories Negotiation: I. Virtue of A Long-term Administration

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Japan and have a summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the December 15th. The focus of the meeting will be the Northern Territories issues (the South Kuril Islands disputes) over the four islands of Etorofu(Itrup), Kunashiri(Kunashir), Shikotan, and Habomai Islands. They have been occupied by the Soviet Union and Russia, since August/September 1945. Japan has been demanding the return of four islands, with a basic stance to conclude a peace treaty with Russia after resolving the issue of the attribution of the four Northern Islands.

Abe advocates “a new approach.” Putin repeats to mention “hikiwake,” or a draw (in the Judo match) in Japanese. Japanese government refuses to clarify the meaning of a new approach. According to the website of Foreign Ministry, however, we can find its key concepts. One of them is future-oriented, or no adherence to the past ideas in my reading.

Abe recently stated in the Diet session that the GOJ would maintain its traditional basic stance, to conclude a peace treaty with Russia after resolving the issue of the attribution of the four Northern Islands. Therefore, the GOJ must be trying to make a deal with Russia by being flexible about the interpretation of “resolving the issue of the attribution of the four Northern Islands.” Besides, the GOJ is said to be proposing a large-scale economic assistance in eight fields, supposedly tens of billion dollars if agreed, ranging from the development of Russian natural resources to the improvement of medical and postal systems.

I suspect that the most prominent fruit of the December summit, as the GOJ is likely to emphasize, will be the conclusion of a Japan-Russo peace treaty. Abe may want to dissolve the Diet by appealing the “historical” peace treaty rather than the resolution of the territorial issues.

At this moment, the negotiation is ongoing, and it is impossible for me to know the detail of it. But let me show my present impressions facing media reports on the Northern Territories negotiation.

First, a long-term administration opens up the possibility of diplomacy for Japan. It’s good even though I don’t basically like Abe’s foreign policy. Abe’s premiership will be four years long in next December. Generally speaking, he will be a senior to the next American president in terms of political career as a top leader. More specifically, he met Putin for fourteen times up to the present. Because Abe’s political base is strong, Russian president can trust his words. Otherwise, any promise about sensitive territorial issue is too risky to take seriously. The same can be said about Putin. In this sense, Abe is seizing a rare opportunity.