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Territorial issue will be settled through political decision in the end: ex-foreign minister

Interview with former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, policy council chair of the Liberal Democratic Party


Q: Has the government changed its stance on peace treaty negotiations with Russia?


Kishida: The Japanese and Russian leaders agreed that Japan and Russia will accelerate negotiations on the signing of a peace treaty based on the Japan-Soviet joint declaration of 1956, which stipulates the handover of the Habomai and Shikotan Islands. This is no different from Japan’s conventional policy.


There was a time when Japan demanded the return of all four islands. Some people call into question the consistency with the conventional basic policy. But Japan’s basic stance is that we will “sign a peace treaty after the sovereignty of the four islands is resolved” and will deal with the specific timing of the return and conditions flexibly.


The joint declaration does not specify how to deal with the Kunashiri and Etorofu Islands. This means that the issue has been entrusted to negotiations between the two nations. The Northern Territories issue is one of the most daunting tasks that Japan has faced since the end of World War II. It is of great significance that the leaders of Japan and Russia confirmed their strong commitment.


Q: More than 70 years have passed since the end of the war. What do you think will be needed to solve the territorial issue?


Kishida: At present, many Russians live in the Northern Territories, so winning their understanding will be necessary to get the four islands returned. It is also important to deepen our mutual understanding by carrying out joint economic activities on the four islands and making it possible for former Japanese residents of the islands to visit there freely. We need to make preparations for the return of the islands and facilitate negotiations simultaneously.


Q: You flew to Russia to meet with President Putin right before his visit to Japan in December 2016.


Kishida: I went there to convey things that Russia did not want to hear, but in our conversations, I sensed his strong will. Even by observing the atmosphere surrounding him, I could sense that he is energetic and very powerful.


When I met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, we crossed swords over the historical background of the Northern Territories and legal interpretations. Lavrov claimed that “the Northern Territories issue is the consequence of WWII and Japan is the only country that is not accepting this.” I rebutted by saying that “(the territorial issue) is not the consequence of the war,” but the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is tough on this. That’s why there are high expectations for the leaders of both nations to demonstrate political leadership.


Q: What’s your take on the prospects for future negotiations?


Kishida: The prospects are not bright at all. In the end, Japan and Russia will have to make a political decision. I hope they will come up with a decision as soon as possible. The government is ultimately responsible for moving diplomacy forward, but it cannot perform this duty without public understanding and support. I believe it is also important for the party to live up to its responsibility in various way to facilitate historic negotiations.

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