Visiting Professor, Chuo University
(This article was published in Gekkan Nippon, monthly political journal April 2009 issue.)
The approval rating of the cabinet of Prime Minister Taro Aso is falling, and dissolution of the House of Representatives for a general election appears to be in the offing. But diplomacy cannot wait. Amid a rapid downturn in the world economy, there has been a change of administration in the United States. Thanks to the continued existence of forces resisting the falsity of market principles, though, Japan so far, by the grace of God, has avoided ruin. It is a good opportunity to build a Japan that is independent and has self-esteem.
The House of Representatives is still plagued by confusion due to remaining elements still worshiping market principles and mammonism, but the opposition parties have a majority in the House of Councillors. This division in the Diet is stimulating the debate about sweeping away Japan’s postwar subordinate state. Although the government may be going downhill, this is a good opportunity for it to sally forth into the volatile world situation and assert Japan’s position as an independent, proud, and positive nation.
From this perspective, Prime Minister Aso’s visit to Sakhalin was dramatic. On the Russian side as well, the dispatch of President Dmitry Medvedev to the Far East was an important development. When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a standard bearer of market principles, visited Moscow, there was no sign of a meeting being set up with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Koizumi was accompanied by Naoki Tanaka, chair of the government’s committee on postal privatization, and others. At that time, it was not surprising that Russia did not give a warm welcome to this group of Japanese neoconservatives. The best they could hope for was that the visit would be seen as a step toward clearing the air following a tax evasion incident involving an automaker. It turned out to be an example of how Russia would not welcome a visit by Japanese neoliberals and oligarchs.
Following the development in Japan-Russia relations, the United States quickly sent the secretary of state to Japan, and the Japanese prime minister was the first foreign leader to be greeted in the White House by the new president, Barack Obama. Although the talks were cordial, amid the decline in its prestige, the United States did not harp on about the Sakhalin visit, so Japan was able to avoid imitating the governments of Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Takeo Fukuda by stepping back so as to avoid Washington’s wrath. If the Yalta setup weakens, Japan has no option but to follow the path of independence and self-esteem. Moreover, rather than becoming a satellite state, this outcome would be better for the building of truly friendly relations between Japan and the United States.
The islands that Japan calls the Northern Territories are called the southern Kuril Islands in Russia. This term refers to the northern Kuril Islands. What must not be forgotten is that a boundary between Japan and Russia was set at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912) by the Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kuril Islands. It was not the result of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and the United States, Britain, and France becoming allies. Japan consistently fought the East Asian War; it was Stalin who tore up the Neutrality Pact between the Soviet Union and Japan. So, conversely speaking, demarcation of the boundary between Russia and Japan is a chance for Russia to clear away the disgrace of its aggression against Japan. While oil and natural gas have been discovered in Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands have abundant fishing grounds. There would be no reason for Japan to be envious at all.
Some pessimists are saying that Prime Minister Putin’s visit to Japan will not provide an opportunity for Russia to improve its relations with Japan. But in order to build a broad, strategic, and friendly framework, the time has come to demarcate the boundary and put an end to the Yalta setup. With the world in a state of fluidity, there is no time like the present.
Since Russia also is no longer a communist state, is not plotting any world revolution, and has overcome much chaos to restore its glory, surely it is in Russia’s interest now to clear away the debris of the Yalta setup as soon as possible. And in order to avoid the intervention of other countries, it is an urgent necessity for Japan and Russia to build a framework matching their national interests.
Furthermore, stable cooperation between Japan and Russia is important in order to restrain the excessive ambitions of China, which has become a manufacturing base for foreign companies, has embraced market principles, and urgently craves natural resources. China must not be given an excuse to openly assert its territorial rights simply to get hold of resources, as it is doing so in the case of the Senkaku Islands. We need to look hollow reality in the face.
The improvement of Japan-Russia relations must also be linked to the problem of the divided Korean Peninsula. If we cling to our pride as a former colonial power, this problem will just be neglected. We must reflect on our annoyance at the one-sided postwar settlement. And rather than just three-party talks, the specific involvement of not only Japan and Russia but, if possible, countries like Mongolia as well would produce fruitful results. For that purpose too, it is necessary to get rid of the territorial problem, internment problem, and other issues between Japan and Russia as quickly as possible.
Recently, looking at an atlas, I was amazed to see that when the map is turned upside down, the Nansei Shoto islands look like the Kuril Islands, and Taiwan takes the place of Sakhalin. After the Greater East Asian War, Japan relinquished Taiwan, and the army of Chiang Kai-shek moved in and occupied it. The United States occupied the islands north of Yonaguni and the former Ryukyu Kingdom up to Amami-Oshima. In 1953 the Amami islands were returned to Japan, and then in 1972 Okinawa was returned, without the Mace B ballistic missiles, which the United States had deployed in consideration of Beijing, but with US military bases.
In order not to have a repeat of the Cold War, Russia should take a decisive step and return both the southern and the northern Kuriles to Japan lock, stock, and barrel. Then we can return to the age of peaceful coexistence that we enjoyed when Russia was under the czars. Russia has the leaders capable of carrying out such a grand plan. In Japan, we must rally politicians who, while engaging in cautious diplomacy, are not afraid to take the plunge and hope for the appearance of a national-salvation government.
Unlike Taiwan, Sakhalin is not independent and does not involve neighboring countries. One of the reasons is that Russia knows well and understands that Japan is a pacifist state that does not seek hegemony. When Prime Minister Putin visits Japan, I hope that the ringing of the peace bell at Nikolai Cathedral in Tokyo will be heard not only in the southern islands but in the whole of the Kuril Islands and that the new Russia declares its intention to return all of the territory seized by Stalin to Japan.
Almost without doubt, the sound of the peace bell will resonate on the Korean Peninsula, in the Asian hinterland, and even across the Caucasus Mountains. And without any doubt at all, just by offering memorial flowers at Yasukuni Shrine, Prime Minister Putin can dispel a long-standing grudge.