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Editorial: Gov’t must sincerely explain stance on Northern Territories talks with Russia

The government says it will advance its foreign policy by seeking the understanding and support of the citizens of Japan. This statement was uttered during Diet deliberations on ongoing negotiations with Russia about the Northern Territories — four islands off the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido claimed by Japan but controlled by Russia — and sounds like nothing but a hollow vow.


“The Japanese government’s stance has remained consistent, and we will solve the territorial dispute and conclude a peace treaty (with Russia),” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting earlier this week. “This policy remains unchanged.”


But it is unclear if the prime minister will truly be able to make his promises a reality. The statement is his first in the Diet after agreeing with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 14 during a meeting in Singapore to focus future talks between the two leaders on concluding a peace treaty based on the 1956 Joint Declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union. However, Abe’s recent declaration in the Diet is, actually, a retreat from earlier government positions.


The joint declaration states that Moscow will hand over two of the four Northern Territories islands — Habomai and Shikotan — to Tokyo after the two countries sign a peace treaty. In October of this year, a month before the meeting in Singapore, Abe said that he would “solve the problem of the attribution of the four northern islands and conclude a peace treaty,” making specific reference to all four islands of the Northern Territories.


Following his meeting with Putin, however, Abe stopped emphasizing all four islands when referring to the territories. President Putin has stated that it was not clear who held the right to sovereignty over Habomai and Shikotan, and is said to be refusing the return of the remaining two bigger islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu.


When asked about the number of islands he intends to demand Russia return, the prime minister said, “I will withhold comment on the islands that are the subject of the negotiations.” Abe even avoided clearly stating the principle view of prior administrations that Russia is “illegally occupying” the four islands.


The Northern Territories issue continues to remain deadlocked over 70 years after the end of World War II. Territorial negotiation is indeed delicate, and it is understandable that the prime minister does not want to raise tensions ahead of full-fledged discussions.


Yet, remaining vague does not help the people of Japan to understand Abe’s thinking. He said he will seek a “solution acceptable to both countries,” but it is only natural for people to worry about the possibility of Russia holding the upper hand during the talks or Japanese participants lacking negotiation skills.


Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono told the same lower house Budget Committee meeting that it is “not in Japan’s best interest to publicly mention the government’s thoughts or negotiation policy before talks begin.” Without presenting even a basic framework of how the government plans to proceed with the negotiations, garnering the understanding of the people is an impossible task.


The Foreign Ministry itself is the government body calling for “diplomacy that stands with citizens.” But reflected in Kono’s statement is his apparent attachment to an “old diplomacy,” in which professionals dominated negotiations regardless of public opinion.


Even though carrying out foreign diplomacy is the prerogative of the Cabinet alone, it is the Diet that has the final say on the conclusion of treaties. Without the support of the people of Japan, the negotiations will not come to fruition.


To truly make progress over the Northern Territories, the government needs a sense of balance to sincerely explain its stance to its citizens and reflect their opinions in the negotiations.

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