Posted in Asia Times, Jan 22 issue.


Tokyo-Moscow Relations

It’s not often that a world leader, or anyone else for that matter, gets to celebrate his own funeral.

Yet that exactly is what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was doing, even if he did not realize it, when he welcomed the recent celebrations in Tokyo for the 10-year renewal of the now 60-year-old Japan-US Mutual Security treaty.

For the renewal of that treaty means in effect that Abe is burying any chance of a breakthrough in the territorial dispute with Moscow that he, Abe, has sought so urgently during his years in office.



For the past 60 years, a major Japanese foreign-policy goal has been a peace treaty promising the return of some four islands/island groups taken by the Soviet Union in 1945 at the end of World War II, near Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. In 1956, Tokyo and Moscow did manage to negotiate the terms of a peace treaty that said that in exchange for such a treaty the USSR would return some of the lost territory – Shikotan island and the Habomai island group close Hokkaido.

Tokyo went on to convince itself that this also gave it the right, or at least the chance, later to negotiate the return of the two other adjacent, much larger and much more strategically important islands also lost to Moscow in 1945: Kunashiri and Etorofu.
But the record of 1956 conversations shows no sign of agreement to talk about other territories. There is no mention of Kunashiri or Etorofu.

What’s more, the 1956 promise of a peace treaty was based on an important condition. It said that the return of Shikotan and the Habomais depended on the two nations maintaining good and peaceful relations with each other, and with the rest of the world.

At the time few paid attention to this kicker: Did not the declaration itself promise good relations, at least with each other? But in 1960 when Japan renewed its 1951 mutual security treaty with the US, Moscow’s hardliner foreign minister Andrei Gromyko was not amused. In an official memorandum to Tokyo, he warned in the sternest possible diplomatic words:

“The Soviet Union certainly cannot ignore such a step as Japan’s conclusion of a new military treaty which undermines the basis for peace in the Far East and creates obstacles to the development of Soviet-Japanese relations. A new situation has formed in relation to the fact that this treaty actually deprives Japan of independence and that foreign troops stationed in Japan as a result of Japan’s surrender remain on Japanese territory. This situation makes it impossible for the Soviet Government to fulfill its promises to return the islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan.

“It is because the Soviet Government met Japan’s wishes and took into consideration the interests of Japan and the peace-loving intentions expressed by the Japanese Government during the Soviet-Japanese negotiations that it agreed to hand over such islands to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty.

“But since the new military treaty signed by the Japanese Government is directed against the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Government cannot contribute to extending the territory available to foreign troops by handing over such islands to Japan.

“Thus, the Soviet Government finds it necessary to declare that the islands of Habomai and Shikotan will be handed over to Japan, as was stated in the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of October 19, 1956, only if all foreign troops are withdrawn from Japan and a Soviet-Japanese peace treaty is signed.”

The message was clear: no removal of US bases in Japan, then no return of Shikotan and the Habomais or, by implication, any other islands. But Tokyo in negotiations with Moscow for a solution of an alleged territorial question Tokyo has not only insisted that the 1956 talks left a Kunashiri and Etorofu opening; it has also managed to ignore this very clear warning about the need to remove US bases.

Territorial talks and negotiations have continued on and off on the seeming assumption the US-base problem could be solved or shelved.

But the hardliners in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affaris (MOFA) did not forget. Not only have they rejected any idea that Japan should ditch its treaty obligations with the US; they have continued throughout to insist that any peace treaty with Moscow would have to promise not just the return of Shikotan and the Habomais but also the return of Kunashiri and Etorofu. There could be no concession. The stalemate would have to continue.

But some have still hoped for a concession. In late 1980s, in the wake the Soviet collapse, and with seeming approval of then-prime minister Yoshiro Mori, a group of three influential Japanese concerned with the stalemate in relations began informal talks with the Russian ambassador to Japan, Alexander Panov, in the hope of finding some solution - for example that Tokyo would allow Moscow some rights to Kunashiri and Etorofu if Moscow confirmed its promise to return Shikotan and the Habomais. They called it the two-islands (Shikotan and the Habomais) plus Alpha solution, with Alpha never properly defined..

(There was also no mention of Gromyko’s 1960 demand for the removal of US bases.)

But when Mori was replaced by Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister, the MOFA hardliners quickly reasserted control. Under Koizumi’s foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka (daughter of former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka), the three solution-seekers were branded as traitors to the nation. On various pretexts the senior MOFA official involved, Kazuhiko Togo, was sent to a remote diplomatic posting. Another MOFA official involved, Masaru Sato, later to be an influential commentator, ended up in extended Carlos Ghosn–style detention. And the third, Muneo Suzuki, later to be an influential politician, went to jail for alleged malfeasance. The chance of a breakthrough was lost forever.

(As a member of Makiko Tanaka’s private advisory committee in 1991, I got to ask her directly why a reputed soft-liner such as herself had taken such a hard line toward Moscow and the three solution seekers. Her reply: When my father went to Moscow in 1973 he pushed for a solution to the island dispute and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had replied, Ya znayu – I know – but then did nothing. Which seemed to me to be a rather flimsy basis for continuing a dispute.)

True, with the pro-judo and therefore presumably somewhat pro-Japan President Vladimir Putin in power in Moscow, Prime Minister Abe seems to have convinced himself that he has had a final chance to break the stalemate and leave at least one foreign-policy legacy for his 12-year regime. He has wanted to see Moscow’s agreement to minor visa and investment relaxations over the disputed territories as signs of that breakthrough. And to the extent he has ignored his MOFA hardliners in the process, there has been breakthrough - on the Japanese side at least.

But on the Russian side it has come much too late. Kremlin attitudes to the West have stiffened, especially after Western objections to Moscow’s takeover in Crimea and Russia’ military support for autonomy seekers in eastern Ukraine. Former ambassador Panov has now come out of semi-retirement openly denying any possibility of a territorial breakthrough. Popular Russian attitudes toward the loss of any Russian territory – even remote islands in the northern Pacific – have turned strongly negative.

And now Gromyko seems to have returned from his grave, with the revival of his 1960 warning. The final nail in the coffin of Shinzo Abe’s hope for one foreign-policy gain has been hammered - unless on yet another planned visit to Moscow later this year Abe about-turns (he is good at that) and suddenly says he is ready to sign a peace treaty without conditions. But Moscow would then have to decide whether it can ignore the ghost of Gromyko.