World Bulletin / News Desk
Russia’s President arrives in Japan on Thursday for a two-day summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the premier’s hometown of Yamaguchi in western Japan.
For Japan, anything less than a breakthrough in a long-running dispute over ownership of four islands north of Hokkaido, that Japan sees as being occupied by Russia, will be a major disappointment.
Abe has invested a lot of his political capital in the return of the islands and has courted Putin all year; first at a meeting in Sochi in May, recently on the sidelines of an economic meeting in Vladivostok, and later in Lima, Peru.
He sent his foreign minister Fumio Kishida to Moscow two weeks before the meeting, presumably to finalize details or perhaps to lobby Putin one more time before the two meet in Japan -- Putin’s first visit since 2009.
Japan's prime minister would like nothing better than to come out of the meeting with substantial concessions. There is even speculation that he might use a diplomatic victory as an excuse to call another general election in January.
But while there will almost certainly be progress on relatively small points, such as allowing visa-free traffic to the islands, most observers doubt that Abe can make any strong progress on an issue that has bedeviled Russo-Japanese relations for more than 70 years.
Amazingly, the two have not yet signed a peace treaty to formally end hostilities in World War II. Tokyo has refused to sign one unless -- and until -- Russia returns the islands known as the Northern Territory in Japan, and the Southern Kurils in Russia.
The four islands in question -- Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Hobamai group -- were annexed by the Soviet army in the last days of the war.
The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan states that Tokyo must give up all claims to the islands, but it does not recognize the Soviet Union's sovereignty.
Furthermore, Japan claims that at least some of the disputed islands are not a part of the Kurils, and thus not covered by the treaty.
Russia maintains that sovereignty was recognized following agreements at the end of the war, however, Japan has disputed this claim.
Japan simply sees Moscow as taking over all of the Kurils up to and including Sakhalin island -- now Russia's largest island, which has historically been claimed by both Russia and Japan -- as war booty. Russia has held the entire island since it seized the Japanese portion.
Incidentally, one of the islands -- Etorofu -- was the assembly point for the Japanese armada that carried the aircraft that bombed Pearl Harbor, setting off the Pacific War with the United States 75 years ago on Dec. 7.
Abe plans to visit Pearl Harbor later in December becoming the first Japan premier to visit the scene of the attack.
Unlike the Senkaku dispute with China, the Northern Territory issue is tractable. At least the two sides agree that there is a dispute. As far back as 1956 Moscow agreed in principle to return Shikotan and the Hobamai group to Japan if she would sign a peace treaty.
Up to now, Tokyo has insisted that all four islands be returned. That is because Shikotan and the Hobamai consist of less than ten percent of the landmass of the four islands put together.
Probably the best outcome for Abe would be a Russian agreement to return the two smaller islands in exchange for Japan signing a peace treaty with some language that leaves open the issue of the two larger islands for the future.
In Lima, Putin said his country is ready for dialogue toward resolving the issue, but that it is “not n easy path.”
The Japan Times reported Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as underlining Nov. 21 that the issue of the Northern Territories has gone unresolved for 70 years.
'So… it’s not an easy problem that can be resolved in one fell swoop,” he underlined.