- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

TOKYO A lingering dispute over the 1945 Soviet seizure of a handful of small, cold, windy specks of land off Hokkaido, northernmost of Japan's four main islands, is keeping Moscow and Tokyo from drafting a World War II peace treaty and moving their relations forward.
The prime ministers of both countries have scheduled a summit meeting on Sunday in the Siberian city of Irkutsk to discuss the territorial dispute, which has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty.
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori of Japan and Russian President Vladimir Putin will sit down together to talk about ownership of the four islands. The two sides, however, are believed to remain far apart on the issue, even at this late date.
The Northern Territories as they are called in Japan the Habomai islets just east of Hokkaido, and the larger islands of Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu were seized by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II. More than 17,000 Japanese were uprooted and forced to leave the islands.
Japan has long demanded the return of the territories as a condition for concluding a postwar treaty.
In November 1997, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed at the eastern Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk that the two nations would work together to resolve the territorial dispute and sign a peace treaty by the end of 2000.

Deadline passes unmet

During his visit to Japan in September, Mr. Putin said Moscow did not feel bound by this deadline and the end of 2000 passed without any progress on the issue.
Mr. Putin, however, confirmed the validity a 1956 joint declaration, which states that Moscow will return Habomai and Shikotan to Japan when a peace treaty is concluded.
It was the first confirmation by a Russian leader since Moscow called the 1956 declaration "invalid" in the 1960s. Japan reportedly seeks to convince Russia to recognize the 1956 declaration in writing when the two leaders meet on Sunday.
Mr. Putin's remarks, however, have divided Russian government officials and politicians, some of whom disagree and want to delay the negotiations as much as possible, said specialists.
As a matter of fact, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov warned Monday in Tokyo that the negotiations would set back to their 1960s deep-freeze if Japan continued to press the 1956 declaration.
Mr. Primakov also criticized Japan for taking an "extreme" negotiating position by seeking the return of all the disputed islands, Kyodo News reported.

Former islanders bitter

"Those comments infuriated me," said Toshio Koizumi, a former resident of Shikotan and the director of an association of former Northern Territories residents. "They stole all of the four islands from us and chased us away. They must return our homeland to us. What we are saying is 100 percent right."
The sad and bitter memories rankle even 55 years after the forced relocation, Mr. Koizumi added. "We can never forget the sufferings and hardships we had to go through."
The islands are now occupied by about 16,000 Russians, many of whom are fishermen and canning-factory workers. Its total land area is 1,976 square miles nearly four-fifths that of the state of Delaware.
Despite Russia's resistance to returning the islands, former residents, many of whom are poor, feel they have been abandoned by Moscow and call themselves "deserted people," said Hiroshi Kimura, a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto.
During a visit to the islands, Mr. Kimura learned that the attitude of current residents about returning the islands to Japan depends on where they live. On Etorofu, a farthest of the four from Hokkaido, which has relatively successful canning plants, many people oppose its return, while most current residents of Shikotan, geographically closest to Japan, have a favorable opinion.

Gorbachev, Yeltsin eager

"But overall, whether they like it or not, they seem ready to comply with whatever decision [Mr. Putin] makes," Mr. Kimura said.
That decision isn't expected anytime soon, since the governments of the two countries have not been able to get the talks moving lately.
Mr. Putin's predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin at least showed a willingness to talk to Japan about the territorial issue.
During a visit to Japan in the spring of 1991, Prime Minister Gorbachev signed a joint declaration with Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki that officially recognized the existence of the territorial issue between the Soviet Union and Japan.
However, the rise of Russian nationalism amid decade-long economic hardships following the collapse of communism apparently has prevented Mr. Putin from compromising.
"Since nationalism is a powerful source of Mr. Putin's popularity, it would be virtually impossible for him to return the disputed islands to Japan," said Mr. Kimura. "Unless Russia falls into a really desperate situation, they will never change direction. They have pride and they are unwilling to compromise."

Putin wants aid, trade

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin seems to be more interested in economic cooperation with Japan as he tries to get as much economic assistance from Tokyo as possible to develop the Far East region, analysts said.
Since Russia's faltering economy needs major support, some suggest that Japan give it in exchange for the territories. But some Japanese scholars object to the idea.
"Even if Russia agreed to return the territories to Japan, would that improve bilateral relations?" asked Takashi Murakami, a professor of economics at Hokkaido University and a specialist on Russo-Japanese economic relations. "I would say that I am skeptical."
Mr. Murakami added he doesn't think Japan would gain as much economic benefit as it might expect, even if the islands did revert.
Japan probably would gain more fish, oil and natural gas from the territories.
Although some large corporations, including American firms, have exploited natural resources in the area of the four islands, things have not been going as smoothly as they expected, Mr. Murakami said.
"They have had difficulty to find buyers of that natural gas due to a comparatively higher price. Russia insists that Japan be a purchaser while Moscow looks to other regions."

Resettlement plans lag

On the other hand, analysts said, the Japanese government has not prepared for what would happen if Moscow decides to return the territories to Japan.
Moreover, "the Japanese are these days less interested in Russia and the two countries' trade volume is also minuscule," Mr. Murakami added. "This is the coldest period of relations between the two countries."
Last year, Japan shipped an estimated $571 million worth of exports to Russia 0.12 percent of Japan's total exports while selling 53 times as much to China.
Young people these days also seem to be more interested in learning English and Chinese languages rather than Russian.
Moreover, as more and more Japanese have begun to feel economic hardship and pessimism about the future of their stalled economy, they wouldn't like their tax money to be used for other countries.
Some suggest that since it seems to be impossible to get all four islands back, Japan should seek the initial return of two of them Shikotan and Habomai, followed by further negotiations focusing on the remaining two. The Habomai islets and Shikotan make up only 7 percent of the land mass of the four islands.

Japan's leaders a factor

"This is totally out of the question. We must get all of them back together," insists Mr. Koizumi, the former resident of Shikotan and Northern Territories activist. "We will never give up because we have already waited 55 years for the islands to be returned."
One big reason it has taken so long and Japan has faced such difficulty getting the talks moving seems to be the absence of strong leadership in Japan. Again this time, with his popularity ratings below 10 percent, Mr. Mori, who is likely to leave office soon, is not expected to make any progress on the issue.
Opposition lawmakers and the Japanese media have objected to Mr. Mori's trips to the United States and Russia, saying it is "impolite" to send a lame duck prime minister to visit the leaders of other countries.
Moreover, while Japanese nationalists and former residents of the Northern Territories are eager to get the islands back, most of the public seems unconcerned about the fate of the small, faraway islands. Instead, they worry that the prime minister, who is seen as national embarrassment, might make another diplomatic gaffe.

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