The government has been reluctant to provide explanations about the Northern Territories issue. Foreign Minister Taro Kono refused to answer journalists’ questions on the issue during a press conference. Also, the foreign minister and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe avoided explicitly responding to questions regarding the issue at the extraordinary Diet session that ended on Dec. 10. They were apparently being careful not to provoke Russia ahead of the bilateral negotiations set to begin in earnest next year.
A summit between Prime Minister Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin held in Singapore in November helped to jump-start negotiations between Tokyo and Moscow. The two countries agreed to accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration. The declaration states that the Habomai group of islands and the island of Shikotan will be handed over to Japan after concluding a peace treaty. But it does not mention Kunashiri and Etorofu.
During the extraordinary Diet session, opposition lawmakers questioned the government one after another about its policy on future negotiations with Russia. Japan takes the position that the four northern islands are Japan’s inherent territory. But Russia insists on its sovereignty over the four islands. It is not clear whether or not Kunashiri and Etorofu islands are included in negotiations if they are based on the Japan-Soviet declaration. Further, President Putin touched on the handover of Habomai and Shikotan islands immediately after the November summit with Abe and said, “We have to make it clear who holds the right to sovereignty over the two islands.” His remark, which made negotiations on the Northern Territories issue more difficult, also affected deliberations during the extraordinary Diet session.
The opposition bloc questioned the government’s view, saying, “Are the four northern islands still illegally occupied?” But Abe just said, “The government’s legal position remains the same,” and Kono said, “There won’t be any negotiation if we just insist on our basic stance.”
As for the Habomai and Shikotan islands, Abe was asked, “Is the leasing of the two islands an option?” But he answered, “My interpretation is that the negotiations will cover the attribution of the four islands.”
Kono presented three elements necessary for concluding a peace treaty: (1) ending the state of war, (2), settling the compensation issues, and (3) establishing the territory. He explained, “The first two elements have been resolved in the joint declaration,” alluding to the idea that establishing sovereignty is indispensable.
One of the reasons Russia is reluctant to hand over the Northern Territories to Japan is that the country is concerned that the U.S., with which it has been at odds, could establish military facilities on the Northern Territories . When Kono was asked by the opposition bloc, “Can the government promise Russia that Japan will not put the U.S. military (facilities or zones) on the islands?” he just answered, “It is not in Japan’s best interest to publicly mention the government’s intentions.”