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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:54 03/09/2007
News Review #323: November 22, 2005

Russia, Japan Acknowledge Old Land Dispute

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

Russia, Japan Acknowledge Old Land Dispute
Vladimir Isachenkof (AP) / ABC Online


Other than the discussion on the territorial issue, President Putin's visit to Japan was well worthwhile for both countries. Admittedly the conflict over the Northern Territories overcasted the meeting psychologically, but there was not much hope for progress on the issue anyway. More important was the leaders' explicit determination to pursue other - and there are many - important and productive agenda in order to sustain hope for mutual prospect in going forward.

Among the territorial issues Japan faces, the Northern Territories (known as the southern Kurils in Russia) is arguably the one most classic, which makes it a big issue in terms of name and reputation.

The story of the Northern Territory goes like this - as told in Japan. The Northern Territories consists of four islands located off the northeast coast of Hokkaido. Japanese routinely traveled to the islands and established its rule by 18th century, if not earlier. In 1855, the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation between Japan and Russia confirmed them to be Japan's territory. Near the end of WWII, the Soviet Union ignored the Neutrality Pact between Japan and the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan. After Japan accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, Soviet forces occupied all of the Islands. Subsequently, the Soviet Union unilaterally incorporated the territories under occupation into its own territories and by 1949 had forcibly deported all Japanese residents of the Four Northern Islands.

There have been many attempts since then, both formally and behind the scene, to resolve the issue. But the simplicity of the issue, that whether the islands are ours or theirs, engaged with all the harsh experience and memories from the war, made it an exceptionally sensitive issue among the people, which has become a large factor in binding the hands of the negotiators. Thus, it is understandable for leaders of either country to have shied away from starting active negotiation on the issue. Any compromise on any of the details of the repeated claims would force the leader - of either country - to face the fury of his people.

Nevertheless, considered pragmatically, the Northern Territory issue may be the one closer to solution than its looks. Because it being a classical conflict, all the arguments of both sides have already been tabled for everyone to analyze, and most of economic rights and benefits associated with territorial rights already have respective and formal fora to discuss them.

If Japan and Russia could agree on certain basics, the islands could serve as a base to develop the area, from Siberia to the North Pacific, for whatever fruit the currently unutilized region could provide.

President Putin, in fact, should be commended for visiting Japan. He did, as he had said he would, remain firm on the territorial issue - and expressed his not-entirely-comfortable feelings in many but subtle ways. But on formal - and diplomatically sophisticated - presentations, he talked of the possibilities of bright futures, and he expressed his will to keep the line open for discussions with Japan on various issues, not excluding the territory.

Indeed, it compares with the Chinese leader when in Seoul shied away from the planned meeting with Mr Koizumi. There may be certain things the Chinese leader does not like about Japan (which must be the same for Mr Koizumi who, however, knows what is more important), but such an infantile attitude by a leader of a country is not appreciated by his colleagues. He may claim that the cancellation is a tactic to let Japan know of the China's discomfort against it. But a leader refusing to see the leader of another country which happens to have - whether like it or not - a close economic ties sharing huge stakes - and prospects, is not fulfilling the responsibilities he has been entrusted by whomever - even if not the people as we define the term.

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