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.
Sophie Shevardnadze: 60 years ago Moscow has offered to give two of the four Kuril islands to Tokyo – Shikotan and Habomai. But Japan demanded all four islands, and its position hasn’t changed since. For Japanese politicians to give up the claims on all four islands – will that be political suicide?
Yukio Hatoyama: Now, looking at the situation 60 years later we have to admit that we need to give up claims on all four islands. We need to resume talks about the two islands – Habomai and Shikotan – if we want to have any chance of coming to an agreement.
If the Japanese government keeps insisting on discussing all four islands this will not result in any positive outcome whatsoever. So it would make sense to start with talking about Habomai and Shikotan and leave the other two islands up for further discussions.
SS: What is Japan ready to do to get those islands? You have to understand that something really serious has to be done so that Russia agrees to reassess the results of World War 2 in this case…
YH: I think it is very important not to lose momentum – it is obvious that President Putin and Prime Minister Abe have the utmost respect for each other and have the resolve to settle the territorial issue. The two administrations should capitalize on that and put all their efforts into reaching a compromise.
The Russian president talks about finding a solution that would benefit both sides, so he basically wants the game to end in a tie. It is very important for both Japan and Russia to continue working in this format in order to settle the territorial issue.
SS: Well, look, I’m going to give you an example. The Nikkei newspaper writes that Tokyo may, for instance, invest in modernisation of Russian hospitals or postal services. Will those steps from the Japanese sides be enough to secure the transfer of the islands?
YH: I don’t think this will be the extent of it. I guess after Russia returns Habomai and Shikotan we will have to figure out how we can work together and get back the other two islands – Iturup and Kunashir. Both Russia and Japan should continue to put effort into solving the territorial dispute. We need to make sure that people from both countries feel comfortable living on the islands.
SS: The Yomiuri newspaper reports that Japan is ready to create a special economic zone under the Russian administration on Iturup and Kunashir – it’ll be a visa-free, common economic space. Is that the breakthrough that the Japanese Prime Minister is talking about?
YH: I can’t speak for Prime Minister Abe because I am not a member of his government at this point. But I would welcome this step – creating common economic space on the islands as a way of settling the issue, which is what Yomiuri was talking about. But I don’t know for sure what Prime Minister Abe brings to the negotiations table.
SS: Well, I’m interested in your personal opinion. I understand that you do not represent the government at this point, but you’re someone who’s in the know about this. What do you think, can the prime minister achieve a breakthrough in negotiations with this position?
YH: I think that the prime minister should strive to achieve this breakthrough. But the Russian public would not support the idea of returning even some of the Kuril Islands, because the patriotic spirit is on the rise in Russia after bringing Crimea back.
But I sense that despite this situation President Putin still wants to settle the Kuril issue and I think his decisions will be supported by the people.
In my opinion, we need to create a situation that would allow us to move forward – we need to be walking towards each other. It is possible to reach a compromise on the Kunashir and Iturup issue. Common economic space and joint Russia-Japan governance come to mind as possible solutions. That is my personal opinion. I would really like to see this breakthrough.
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.
SS: Why is it that the diplomatic progress, the peace accord between Russia and Japan is perceived as harmful?
YH: This notion was dictated by the Cold War – it was not good for Japan to find a solution to the territorial problem during negotiations with Russia, the Soviet Union. The Cold War has been over for some time now, but Japanese authorities still have that mentality.
The reality is that many politicians in the Japanese government still think in Cold War categories. This doesn’t help the Russia-Japan relations and doesn’t advance the territorial negotiations.
SS: Mr. Hatoyama. You had to resign as Prime Minister after you promised voters to evict the American military base from Okinawa and failed to do so because of the harsh stance of the U.S. You said then: “I know that we have to keep a relationship of trust with the U.S. at any cost”. This trusting relationship is so important that it determines who gets to lead your country?
YH: Of course relations between Japan and America are very important. And the main reason for my resignation from office was the failure to do the will of the people – relocate the US military base, Futenma, from the prefecture or, ideally, the country. But the base is still in Henoko, Okinawa. America was not willing to make any concessions, and high standing officials in Japan, the foreign ministry refused to support me on this mission against the US military base, even though they all know what America’s true intentions are.
The government did not go against the US’s demands. I think that I was too weak to stand against the Japanese officials.
SS: The construction of new military facilities on Okinawa has been halted for some time because of the resistance of local authorities – do you think they will manage to change the situation to their advantage?
YH: The Futenma relocation issue has not been resolved. The problem of the US base in Henoko is now deadlocked because of serious protests from local residents. There might even be some legal action, the case might go to court. I think that it is very important to remove the Futemna base from the island, but the current government doesn’t want to do it. Tokyo insists that the base should remain in Okinawa Prefecture.
But it is a mistake. The Japanese people must be presented with other options. I think that a time will come when the concept of American soldiers stationed in Japan will be revised. There is no need to build a new base in Okinawa, there are other options – rotating US soldiers throughout different locations in Japan, for example. But as of now there has been no solution, and it is obvious that stationing the US military base in Henoko is a big mistake that will lead to a bloody tragedy in the country.
SS: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has recently expanded the mandate of Japanese Self-Defence Forces, allowing them to take part in military operations abroad with its allies. Does this mean Japan’s getting ready for some kind of confrontation? Is this a reaction to China’s territorial claims?
YH: Last year Prime Minister Abe facilitated a law that allows some involvement of the Japan Self-Defense Forces in operations abroad. This obviously contradicts the Constitution of our country, but Prime Minister Abe just ignored the Constitution allowing the use our Self-Defense Forces internationally. As a result Japan can now be involved in wars that America has a stake in.
The fact that Japan is now allowed to participate in joint military operations with the US sets a dangerous precedent. Japan has not been involved in such activities for 71 years – after World War 2. The Abe government is trying to stress the “Chinese threat”, but right now China does not really pose a serious threat to our country. Even though there is a territorial dispute about the Senkaku Islands I don’t think the Chinese government is ready to take any military action in order to take the islands.
I strongly disagree with the Abe administration’s attempts to draw our armed forces into international conflicts at a time when we need to focus on building peace.
SS: Is the Japanese Self-Defence Force going to turn into a real, fully functional army?
YH:. I don’t think the Self-Defense Forces will turn into a real army. The purpose of these forces is internal defense. But in this new reality it will be possible to send the Self-Defense Forces to fight in other parts of the world. I think it is illegal. The Constitution of Japan doesn’t allow participation in bloodshed. Our Constitution clearly states that military force cannot be used to resolve international conflicts. If we comply with the Constitution the Self-Defense Forces will not become an army, but the Abe government is pushing us towards involvement in international wars, different conflicts abroad.
And even though right now the Self-Defense Forces have not become a real army, I think we are moving in that direction.
SS: Japan’s defence minister, Tomomi Inada, said that the country is ready to join American Navy patrols in South China Sea. The Chinese military officers have warned that Japan is “playing with fire” when it agrees to do that. Is Japan going to give up on those plans under Chinese pressure?
YH: China really is trying to send a message to Japan. Conducting the Japan-US exercises doesn’t’ make any sense.
They will provoke both China and North Korea – and nobody wants conflict. This enhanced military cooperation between America and Japan does not promote peace in the region. I don’t think joint military exercises should be a basis for cooperation. Cooperation should be built on dialogue and diplomacy. Strengthening the military component does not benefit our country in any way.
SS: Admiral Takei, chief of staff of the Japanese navy, said that there should be tighter interaction with the Chinese military. Does the Japanese attempt to normalise the relationship with China irritate Washington?
YH: I think the advances in the military cooperation between China and Japan does irritate the Americans.
But any cooperation with other countries contributes to peace and stability in the region. If we want peace and stability then we should not view China as a threat but rather work with Beijing, because military partnership would benefit both of our countries.
SS: The Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, which aims to unite the majority of the countries in the region into one giant economic bloc, is stalling during the presidential campaign in the U.S. Both candidates are sceptical about the deal – do you think it still has a chance?
YH: I think that the chances for the success of the TPP deal are very slim. As you said President Obama was a strong supporter of the agreement, but both presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Trump claims that Clinton only says that she is against the deal in order to get votes but will actually promote it if she becomes president. Clinton of course denies it. So it will not be easy to move forward with the TPP after the US election. And if Japan zealously ratifies it in this situation it will become a laughing stock. Also I don’t think that the TPP deal benefits Japan in any way.
SS: Yes, I also wanted to mention – the TPP may seriously harm Japanese farmers, who might not be able to compete when tariffs are down and a free trade zone is established. Are those damages worth the potential advantages of the treaty?
YH: I see no benefits in this agreement. It will hit our farmers really hard, right now there is no estimate of how devastating it will be. Rice farmers will suffer the most, as rice is the most popular grain in Japan.
Those who produce meat and dairy will also experience difficulties. I think that Japan should get the best deal on rice production, since rice is basically a cultural symbol for us, and other countries need to be flexible in this respect. We need to protect our national interests.
But the TPP will create problems not just for farmers – all our people will feel the effect. The Investor-to-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system under the TPP will become a serious issue for many industries. If the deal goes through, US companies and multinational corporations will get the right to sue the Japanese government. In a sense it will be a new institution that will have power over our Constitution. I think it is very dangerous.
SS: Of course, those supra-national courts – for me, it’s the strangest part of the whole deal. Transnational corporations influencing public policy – is Japan ready for that?
YH: The current government says that these courts don’t pose any threat because their objective is to regulate dealings with developing countries with inefficient legal systems, but it’s not true. When such institution is established Japan will become its target. Feels like the Japanese government doesn’t realize that yet, but I see the danger.