Russia and Japan haven’t been able to settle the issue of the Kuril Islands and sign a peace treaty since the end of World War II, resulting in a territorial dispute that’s been around for seven decades. But warm ties between the countries’ current leaders could lead to a breakthrough. Many are expecting progress to be made when Russian President Putin is in Japan for a state visit in December. Can the issue of the disputed islands be settled for good? And will Japan’s special relationship with America stand in the way of closer cooperation with Russia? Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is on SophieCo to discuss.
SS: As one of the options, is it possible that Japan recognises Russia’s acquisition of Crimea - in exchange to the transfer of Kuril islands to Japan? Can Japan go against the G7’s stance on Crimea for the sake of the return of the Kuril islands?
YH: I doubt that the Abe administration would be brave enough to take that step at this point. If you ask me I think that historically Crimea has been Russian territory. Under Khrushchev it was given to Ukraine – with total disregard of international law. That’s how the Crimea issue began. Now the international community should recognize the peninsula as part of Russia. If Japan did that and recognized Crimea as Russian territory it could encourage European countries to follow suit.
And that in turn could make President Putin more inclined to meet some of Tokyo’s demands and move forward on the Kuril Islands issue. Russia might even satisfy Japan’s claims on all four islands. Of course this is just conjecture, and unfortunately at this point the Abe government is not ready to recognize Crimea as part of Russia. However such step would boost the Russia-Japan relations tremendously.
SS: You went to Crimea last year. You said then that Crimea becoming part of Russia is the expression of the actual will of the Crimean people. You’ve been eaten alive by the Japanese press for that - why was your point of view met with such hostility, is it only because it’s different from the G7’s point of view?
YH: The Japanese media and government cannot navigate away from the Cold War attitudes, and whenever there is a disagreement between Russia and the US they always take America’ side. Tokyo remains dependent on the US’s views. This means that when it comes to Crimea Japan will continue to side with America and the G7 countries and claim that it was Russian annexation of the peninsula in violation of international law.
Naturally my decision to visit Crimea took a lot of heat in Japan. However it is no secret that the legitimate president of Ukraine was basically overthrown because of American involvement in the process, and replaced by a pro-American leader – all that under the pretense of fighting for democracy. Those events encouraged the people of Crimea to start thinking about breaking away from Ukraine, and through a referendum it was decided to join Russia. I visited Crimea a year after the referendum. What I saw was a peaceful and free region. Most people in Japan don’t even realize that there is peace in Crimea. The Japanese media and government refuse to recognize the peninsula as Russian territory, that’s why they criticized what I had to say about the situation. But we need to pay more attention to historical truth.
SS: Look. Japan has joined sanctions against Russia after the Crimean affair, but the Japanese sanctions are more or less symbolic. Did the Japanese government enact sanctions under pressure, just so that its G7 partners wouldn’t be irritated?
YH: Of course Japan is trying to solve the territorial dispute, and when the Crimea situation happened things became very complicated for Tokyo. When the West imposed sanctions on Russia Japan had no choice but follow America.
However Japanese economic sanctions are more of a formal gesture – they are not too serious. I think that President Putin sees that. But sanctions are still sanctions. In my opinion, Japan could take the initiative and lift those economic limitations.
SS: Fumio Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister, said that Tokyo keeps Washington in the loop on talks with Russia and “informs them about the actions of Russia”. So Japan is getting American input on how it’s supposed to improve ties with Moscow? I understand that the U.S. is Japan’s ally, but Japan doesn’t report to its other allies like Canada, or France, Germany…
YH: America is a special ally for Japan, it is respected by the Japanese more than other partners. Other countries, even though they are also are allies, have a different place. And I think it presents a big problem. When making foreign policy decisions Tokyo is always guided by the US’s approach. Japan depends on America. When Russia and Japan discussed the Kuril Islands 60 years ago Prime Minister Ichirō Hatoyama was determined to resolve to territorial dispute and was ready to accept just the two islands.
But America strongly disagreed with his position. Washington threatened to take Okinawa if Tokyo agreed to the two islands compromise. As a result Japan failed to return the two Kuril islands, things stayed the same and have not been resolved since. Essentially this territorial issue should be settled between the two countries – Japan and Russia – but it is very possible that the outcome of the negotiations will depend on the US’s opinion.