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Expert: Japan should not give up on the return of four islands

Interview with Hiroshi Kimura, professor emeritus at Hokkaido University


Q: What’s your impression of Prime Minister Abe’s resolve to promote negotiations based on the Japan-Soviet joint declaration of 1962?


Kimura:  He jumped the gun. Politicians must be realistic because they cannot pursue ideals alone. When Russian President Putin proposed “signing a peace treaty within the year” in September, he jumped at it. I feel that he is focusing too much on legacy-making.


The joint declaration is designed to return only the two islands – Habomai and Shikotan. Japan pushed back the argument to the “return of the four islands” via the Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia Relations (1993) and the Irkutsk statement (2001). Abe’s latest move highlights a huge policy shift. President Putin may have taken this with great joy.


Q: Do you think the government should uphold the stance on the return of the four islands?


Kimura: The Soviet Union broke the Japan-Soviet neutrality pact in August 1945. It joined the war against Japan and seized the four islands after Japan’s surrender. Japan’s demand for the return of the four islands symbolizes nothing but questioning Russia about the international justice of the inviolability of national borders and territorial non-expansion.  


The chances of the four islands returning to Japan’s sovereignty in the near future are slim, but Japan should not give up. Territorial integrity is important. The four islands symbolize how serious Japan is about protecting its own territory. China and South Korea are watching how Japan will deal with this territorial issue.  


Q: How do you think the negotiations will move forward?


Kimura: The joint declaration does not specify the timing of the handover of Habomai and Shikotan. Russia does not specify when the handover will take place either. So this will become a point of contention. About 3,000 Russians live on Shikotan. They will demand compensation for the handover.


Even if the two islands are returned to Japan, Etorofu and Kunashiri – the remaining two islands – will stay under Russia’s sovereignty. What the deal of “returning the two islands in advance” truly means is that the two islands are all that Japan can get. Some people say that the deal may offer something extra, but even if joint economic activities between Japan and Russia are realized in the Northern Territories including Etorofu and Kunashiri, this will become a losing deal for Japan as long as Japan pays money. So Japan will get a “minus alpha” deal. Russia is using a strategy of procrastination so “Japan will give up some day.”


Q: The Putin administration must remain stable in order for Japan and Russia to sign a peace treaty.


Kimura: Public support for President Putin has dropped to some 60% from around 80% as a result of the pension reform. So his influence is weakening.


Q: Abe and Putin agreed to create a new negotiation mechanism by designating their foreign ministers as persons responsible for negotiations.  


Kimura: Next year will become crucial for negotiations. But negotiations may devolve to the working level and the two sides may face difficulties as they may make detailed demands of each other. We have an advantage in that Prime Minister Abe has show his determination to sign a peace treaty, but it remains to be seen what will happen next. No optimism is warranted.

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