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Japan fears war gaffe impact on isle talks with Russia

Tokyo, May 14 (Jiji Press) — The administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is concerned that Russia may toughen its stance further in bilateral territorial negotiations, following a Japanese lawmaker’s recent remarks suggesting a war as a way for Japan to recapture four Russian-controlled northwestern Pacific islands.

The administration hopes to calm down the situation by condemning the House of Representatives lawmaker, Hodaka Maruyama, 35, a member of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), and clarifying its stance afresh that Japan hopes to settle the issue peacefully.

The remarks were “extremely regrettable,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference on Tuesday morning. “There is no change in the government’s stance of aiming to resolve the territorial issue through diplomatic negotiations,” Suga said.

It was rare for the top government spokesman to comment on a gaffe by an opposition lawmaker.

Suga reiterated his condemnation of Maruyama at an afternoon press conference, saying, “It’s obvious to anyone that the comments were inappropriate.” Maruyama should take responsibility for his remarks, Suga added.

Maruyama made the remarks while he accompanied former Japanese residents of the islands on their four-day visa-free visit there through Monday.

According to a senior official of Nippon Ishin, which expelled Maruyama from the party on Tuesday, it learned of the remarks through a phone call from the prime minister’s office.

Tokyo claims that the islands were seized by the former Soviet Union from Japan at the end of World War II. The territorial dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a peace treaty to formally end their wartime hostilities. The islands were known as the Northern Territories in Japan.

“We hope to conduct the bilateral (territorial and peace treaty) negotiations in a situation as calm as possible,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told a press conference on Tuesday. “I don’t think the remarks will have any positive impact.”

Behind the administration’s sensitiveness to Maruyama’s gaffe is Moscow strengthening its tough stance on the bilateral talks.

At their summit in November last year, Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to accelerate the negotiations based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration. But Moscow started to take a hard-line stance on the issue afterward.

Concluding a broad agreement in the bilateral negotiations on the occasion of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, western Japan, in late June was initially tipped as a possible scenario. But this is now highly unlikely, and the Japanese government has been forced to overhaul its negotiation strategy.

“We have to prevent Maruyama’s remarks from affecting the negotiations,” Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi, minister for Northern Territories affairs, told a press conference on Tuesday.

The 1956 declaration called for the handover of two of the four islands–the Habomais and Shikotan–to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. The document had no reference to the other two islands–Etorofu and Kunashiri.

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