The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Who in the DPJ Government Will Take the Lead in Negotiations with Russia for the Return of the Northern Territories?

April 27, 2010

Russia is taking a cautious approach to the prospect of a concrete change in Japan's attitude toward the issue of the northern territories. Russia is also watching carefully to see who will lead the negotiations on behalf of the Hatoyama administration.

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On September 3, 2009, just after the Democratic Party of Japan's victory in the August general election made it clear that DPJ head Yukio Hatoyama would launch a new administration in Japan, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Andrei Nesterenko made the following statement with regard to the question of signing a formal bilateral peace treaty:

We hope that Mr. Hatoyama makes the right choice in this matter, as his grandfather—Ichiro Hatoyama—once did, signing from the Japanese side in 1956 the Joint Declaration that restored relations between our countries. 1

This short comment encapsulated the major issues of interest to the administration of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as it looked to the formation of the new Japanese government. In short, the key question for the Russians is whether there will be any concrete change in the Japanese approach to the issue of the “northern territories,” the islands off of Japan's main northern island of Hokkaido that Russia took over at the end of World War II.

The Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956, which restored diplomatic relations between the two nations, states the following in its Paragraph 9:

Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics agree to continue, after the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, negotiations for the conclusion of a peace treaty. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, desiring to meet the wishes of Japan and taking into consideration the interests of Japan, agrees to hand over to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan . However, the actual handing over of these islands to Japan shall take place after the conclusion of a peace treaty between Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. 2

The bolded text (my emphasis) clearly states that the islands of Habomai and Shikotan will be returned to Japan once the two nations conclude a formal peace treaty. When interpreted in this light, Nesterenko's message delivered last fall boils down to: “Our nations should address the problem of the northern territories with the return of these islands and conclude a peace treaty.”

Soon after taking office, Prime Minister Hatoyama spoke with President Medvedev on September 17 in his first summit-level telephone conference. The prime minister followed this conference with a public statement expressing his strong hope that Japan would see progress in the area of the northern territories: “I would like to satisfy the wishes of the Japanese people within a half-year.”

What approach are Prime Minister Hatoyama and the DPJ administration he leads likely to take on this front? It is likely that a key figure will be New Party Daichi President Muneo Suzuki, who chairs the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. In an interview carried in the September 24 Sankei Shimbun , Suzuki notes clearly: “Prime Minister Hatoyama has asked for my cooperation in moving the northern territories issue toward resolution.”

Suzuki is known for having worked on northern territory issues with Masaru Sato, then a senior analyst at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under three prime ministers—Ryutaro Hashimoto, Keizo Obuchi, and Yoshiro Mori. He later had an antagonistic relationship with Makiko Tanaka, minister for foreign affairs under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Around the same time he came under suspicion of malfeasance, and when criminal charges were brought against him he effectively disappeared from the Russo-Japanese diplomatic stage. With the launch of the Hatoyama administration, however, Suzuki appears poised to return to the forefront of discussions with Moscow on the return of the islands claimed by Japan.

If Suzuki does take the lead in the Hatoyama administration's negotiations with Russia to regain the islands, how can we expect matters to unfold? Suzuki himself presents a possible outline in his Sankei interview:

My role is to get the necessary environment in place. First we've got to make sure Japan's Diet members understand the territorial issues well. It's surprising to hear some people still saying things like “we must get all four islands back all at once.”

There may be some differences between my understanding of the route to take to getting the islands back and the stance expressed in Sankei Shimbun editorials, but the fundamental principle is the same: we must secure the return of all our territory, the “four islands” of Kunashiri, Etorofu, the Habomai Islands, and Shikotan. But this “getting the four islands back all at once” language is something used during the Soviet era. If we use this sort of expression today, Russia won't be willing to come to the negotiating table.

In 1993, after the Soviet Union had come to an end, Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia Relations, indicating their agreement on the need to address the status of the territory in question. From that point up through the administration of Yoshiro Mori, talks were unmistakably moving forward between Japan and Russia. The prime ministers from Junichiro Koizumi through Taro Aso, however, took a foreign policy tack placing Japan excessively in the American camp, and this, along with a lack of understanding of the issues involved with the northern territories, set the negotiations back. I hope to have experts share their views with the Committee on Foreign Affairs and take other steps to get the public interested in and educated on this subject.

If we want to get negotiations moving again, we need to move the clock back to the Irkutsk Statement, the formal agreement inked in 2001 by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and President Vladimir Putin that reconfirmed the validity of the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration. If we build on the 1956 document, which clearly spelled out the return of Habomai and Shikotan, as well as the 1993 Tokyo Declaration and 2001 Irkutsk Statement, we can certainly resolve the territorial issues.

It's important, though, for the Japanese government to hold firm on the requirement that all four islands be returned. The sort of thinking we saw during the Aso administration, which involved splitting the difference between the two sides by asking first for half of the islands as measured by area, or for the return of “3.5 islands,” including only part of Etorofu, will never do; we aren't talking about breaking up a bunch of bananas for sale here. . . . While considering what we need to do to get the islands back for Japan, we must take pragmatic approaches to the diplomatic negotiations. It only caused confusion when Japan backtracked from the requirement that all four islands be returned.

The leaders of Japan and Russia confirmed that the question of ownership of the islands remains unresolved in the Tokyo Declaration. This means we have many options: for instance, we could get two of the islands back right away and continue negotiations on the others, carrying out economic cooperation or joint administration while working toward their eventual return. This pragmatic approach is the one we should take. The Japanese government's stance is that once we confirm ownership of the islands, we can be flexible with respect to the actual timing, form, and conditions for their return.

In other words, this is a “return two, discuss two” approach: based on the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, Japan will first regain the islands of Habomai and Shikotan, whose return is spelled out there. At that point the nations can sign an intermediate treaty of some sort. Building next on the Tokyo Declaration, which clearly states that ownership of the territory is unresolved, the parties can continue bilateral talks toward the return of Kunashiri and Etorofu.

One key characteristic of this approach is its insistence on the eventual return of all the territory in question. This sets it apart from the “half the territory” and “3.5 islands” resolution strategies brought forward under the Aso administration. The problem with this approach, however, lies in the risk that Russia might respond to the return of the first set of islands by treating the matter as having reached a conclusion.

On October 17 Seiji Maehara, the minister in the Hatoyama cabinet responsible for Okinawan and northern territories issues, visited Cape Nosappu in Nemuro, Hokkaido, the closest point to the Habomai Islands. After observing the isles, Maehara stated to the reporters accompanying him: “Historically and internationally speaking, the northern territories are an integral part of Japan. They were occupied illegally in the turmoil just after the end of the war. We must continue demanding the return of these islands.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to this by stating: “It is regrettable that unacceptable, inappropriate, and legally meaningless remarks steeped in a confrontational spirit were made in Japan again despite the positive statements of willingness by the new Japanese leadership to vigorously promote relations with Russia, as well as the constructive nature of the September meeting in New York between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.” 3

To be noted here is Suzuki's response to Maehara’s speech. On October 20, he pointed out: “His use of the term ‘occupied illegally’ was a mistake. Russia admits that these islands are disputed territory. A statement like his [made ahead of the Russo-Japanese summit meeting scheduled for November in Singapore] could very well be taken the wrong way.” Suzuki's criticism went on: “If he believes he can say provocative things and be taken seriously he's sorely mistaken. Diplomacy is something to be done quietly.”

The Medvedev administration is certain to be watching these Japanese discussions with interest. We can be sure that the Russian government is now gathering and analyzing information on whether there will be further differences of opinion on the best negotiating stance for the northern territories issues within the Hatoyama administration and the DPJ, as well as on who is actually in charge of the process in Japan. ( Translated from a report in Japanese published on October 21, 2009 )

1 Quote taken from:

2 Text is from:

3 Quote taken from:

    • 畔蒜泰助 }
    • Taisuke Abiru
    • Taisuke Abiru
    Areas of Expertise
    Russian politics and energy strategy, Japan-Russia relations, eurasian geopolitics

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