May 1987 / TOKYO Business Today

Mr. Gorbachev was supposed to visit Japan this month (January). He won't, and the Japanese reaction to it all reminds one of kids pulling petals off a daisy. "She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me .....

The game usually begins with a Japanese leader deciding that for domestic political reasons he needs to get a major Soviet leader to visit Japan. He sends various messages to the Kremlin. Then when the Soviets say yes, the pundits here tell the nation that this proves how desperate the USSR is to be friends with Japan, that it badly needs Japanese technology, or help into Asia, or what have you.

The pundits then warn that Japan should respond firmly and cautiously to this Soviet rabukooru (lovecall). It should tell the USSR that there can be no improvement in relations unless it returns the so-called Northern Territories. When the Soviets make it clear they do not want to talk about territory the pundits get angry. They say Japan must pursue its territorial demands doggedly. The Soviets are weak. Japan can wait. The Japanese leader agrees with the pundits, of course.

Then when the Soviets in irritation refuse to come at all the pundits say how this proves the Soviets were unreasonable to begin with and that there was no point talking to them anyway. Meanwhile the territorial dispute remains hopelessly deadlocked.

This is not to pour cold water on the Japanese claims for the Northern Territories. The Japanese historical claim to the two main islands in dispute - Etorofu and Kunashiri - is quite good. As for the other islands - Habomai and Shikotan - the Japanese legal claim is also strong. The Soviets would have returned these other islands to Japan back in 1956, but for Tokyo's extraordinary negotiating tactics at the time.

Unfortunately the Japanese legal claim over Etorofu and Kunashiri is almost non-existent since Japan, under pressure from the west, renounced all right and claim to "the Kurile Islands" in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. At the time it admitted sadly, but openly, that Etorofu and Kunashiri were included in the Kurile Islands it had renounced.

In 1954, however, the government got up one day and said that Japan could not possibly have renounced its rights to Etorofu and Kunashiri since they were traditional Japanese territory. This is clearly a rather emotional and non-legalistic kind of logic. But it has beenrepeated so often now that the whole of Japan believes it, and the pundits ex-ploit it.

Ironically, if Japan were a little more legalistic it could well solve the dis-pute. It should admit the legal back-ground - that the U.S. promised the Kuriles to the USSR at Yalta in 1945 and that the USSR for obvious reasons cannot appear to back away from any of its Yalta gains. But Japan can also point to the documented evidence that the U.S. delegation to Yalta did not know the historical background to Etorofu and Kunashiri, that Japan in 1951 clearly voiced its dismay at having to renounce this territory, and that for these special reasons maybe just this once an exception can be made to theYalta agreements. The Soviets couldwell respond to such an approach since it is clear they do want better relations with Tokyo. But if Japan sticks to its present position the Soviets will have to keep saying nyet, forever. The only gainers will be the ultra-nationalists, in both camps.


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