JAPAN MUST BIDE ITS TIME TO REGAIN “NORTHERN TERRITORIES”
Advocating war with Russia to regain four northern Japanese islands—as was recently done by a young lawmaker—is out of the question, needless to say.
Generally speaking, the lack of knowledge about the “Northern Territories” on the part of Japanese lawmakers, especially those in the opposition camps, is appalling. Hodaka Maruyama (35), a member of the conservative minority Japan Restoration Party, was on a visa-free exchange visit to Kunashiri. While there he was quoted as saying: “Is there any way (to resolve the territorial dispute) if we don’t go to war?” He has since been dismissed by his party. (Editor’s note: Three days after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration to formally surrender to the Allies, on August 18, 1945, Soviet troops invaded the Kuriles, occupying the four islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Habomai, and Shikotan.)
The visa-free exchange was agreed on between the governments of Japan and Russia in 1992, the year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The agreement allows 600 citizens each from both nations to exchange visits every year. Japanese who have participated in the program have included former residents of the islands and their families, those engaged in campaigns to regain the islands, members of the press, and lawmakers.
Lawmakers joining the program are selected from a cross section of political parties; members of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) must wait for their turns longer than those from smaller parties. Generally speaking, LDP members invest reasonable time doing preliminary research on the territorial issue in study groups, according to Professor Yoshihiko Yamada of Tokai University, a maritime affairs expert.
Professor Yamada, himself a member of a previous delegation, points out that, because members of smaller political parties tend to see their turns come sooner, they are generally inclined to visit the islands without sufficiently studying their history or coming to grips with the significance of the visa-free visits.
Should a Japanese cause a problem during one of these visits, he will be tried under Russian law. This would be absolutely unacceptable to Japan, as it has consistently asserted that the four islands are inherent Japanese territories that were unlawfully invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union in 1945. Rigid rules, such as a curfew, have therefore been imposed on Japanese visitors in order to absolutely avoid any such incident.
I would think that an evening on a Russian-held island ought to be spent to seriously contemplate the situation in which the islands were mercilessly wrested away from Japan, the many outrages committed by Soviet soldiers against Japanese residents, and the integrity of Japan as a nation under such circumstances. Nothing is more senseless than getting intoxicated and making a scene like Maruyama.
Seven decades after the end of the last war, there are still no signs that Russia is ready to return the islands. The primary reason is that Russia is Russia after all. Japan is dealing with a nation that behaves entirely differently from the United States, which returned the Okinawa islands in 1972. Let us look at the reality Russia is faced with.
Russia’s Keen Attachment to Lost Land
Territorial issues relate directly to nationalism. The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 as a socialist superpower, leading to the birth of the Republic of Russia devoid of the many territories that the USSR once boasted. The grudge on the part of Russians resulting from the fall of their nation as a superpower is deep, the obsession over the land lost intense. That is why the approval rating of Russian leader Vladimir Putin shot up to 86.25% when he annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
As of April this year, however, Putin’s approval rating had plummeted to 64%. The Russian economy has been in a shambles, prompting Putin to raise the national retirement age last October—from 55 to 63 for women, and 60 to 65 for men. In January this year, he raised the value added tax by 20%. And yet, the Russian national finance is still hard-pressed.
Russia is under triple economic woes: 1) low crude oil prices; 2) a decline in the value of the ruble; and 3) economic sanctions imposed by the G7 nations over Russia’s seizure of Crimea, according to Professor Hiroshi Kimura, a leading expert on Russian affairs. While neither economic recovery nor a rise in approval ratings is in view, Putin would think twice before taking the risky step of returning the islands to Japan and inflaming a nationalist response among the Russian people.
In sharp contrast to Russia’s depressed economy, Putin has endeavored to significantly strengthen its military. I suspect that maintaining military might and showing it off might be one of the few opportunities for Putin to reassure himself of the pride and confidence he takes in his motherland. Viewed from a military standpoint, the possibility of Russia returning the islands to Japan appears remote at this time.
As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Putin continued summit talks to resolve the territorial dispute, a possible return of just two of the islands—Habomai and Shikotan—has been taken up. These two islands account for only 7% of the total landmass of the four islands put together.
Some 1,000 select personnel of the Russian Border Security Agency are permanently stationed on the 250 square-kilometer (95.5 square-mile) Shikotan, with a fleet of nine high-speed patrol boats deployed to guard the northern seas leading south to the entrance to the Sea of Japan. About one third the island’s population are members or families of the security forces, a majority of the infrastructure there being hospitals and gymnasiums for the residents. Meanwhile, the northern half of the island is an off-limits nature reserve.
Shikotan is an island whose primary purpose is to safeguard the security of Russia’s southern border with Japan. The mission is presumably the same for Habomai, on which only members of the Border Security Agency and military personnel reside. These two small islands are so near to the northern tip of Hokkaido that they can easily be seen with the naked eye on a clear day. That Russia so aggressively deploys army and border security personnel on these islands is an indication of how integral a part they are of the overall Russian efforts to extend control over the wide expanse of the waters stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Sea of Okhotsk, the northwestern Pacific, and the Arctic Ocean.
Relations between China and North Korea aren’t necessarily at their best, but there is no question that China’s influence over North Korea has steadily been increasing. It would be correct to say that the expansion of China’s power over the Korean Peninsula and the Japan Sea has been advancing to a new stage each year.
In 2005, China obtained a 50-year-lease on the port of Rajin, North Korea’s northernmost port on the Sea of Japan. The Chinese have since built and obtained the lease of a 60-kilometer (38-mile) highway linking the port with a town on the China-North Korea border. For the first time in their history, the Chinese have secured a port and a highway that allows them to directly access the Japan Sea.
Then in 2012, the Chinese won the rights for the 30-year use of the North Korean port of Chongjin, one of the North’s three biggest cities and a major national distribution center.
National Defense Perspective
Regardless of how the South-North relationship may evolve, China, which has secured 50-year exclusive development rights in a number of North Korean mines with some of the world’s richest underground mineral resources, is expected to exert a stronger influence over the whole of the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese will utilize the international port of Pusan more aggressively, and likely continue to vigorously buy up real estate in Okinawa in the same way as they have in Cheju-do, off Pusan.
Currently, Japanese, American, South Korea, and Russian submarines cruise the Sea of Japan, but their Chinese counterparts have so far stayed away. Depending on China’s future relations with the two Koreas, however, there will likely be a time when Chinese submarines will start navigating likewise. How will the Russians react ?
To counter the Chinese, the Russians secured exclusive rights in 2013 to a pier in the port of Rajin. On top of that, they completed a railway linking the port with the Russian Far Eastern town of Khasan, 54 kilometers (34 miles) away.
It would be logical to assume that Russia, which is wary of China, will not readily forsake the northern islands, its base for surveillance operations over the northern areas of the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. If Russia should return the islands to Japan, it would naturally consider the possibility of the US setting up military installations there under the terms of the US-Japan Security Treaty. Under its grand sea lane initiative stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Sea of Okhotsk, the Pacific Ocean, and the Arctic passage, it is only natural for Russia to recognize the strategic importance of the northern islands. In terms not only of Russia’s economic but national security, one would have to grudgingly conclude that returning the island to Japan would be a difficult proposition for Moscow.
What then can Japan do? Certainly not wage a war against Russia to regain the islands, as Maruyama so crudely advocated.
Shouldn’t we Japanese instead sharpen our diplomatic sense, prudently examine the world geopolitical situation, and bide our time for an opportunity to take appropriate action? West Germany adroitly took advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union at the turn of the century. Utilizing this great transformation of world history symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bonn achieved its coveted dream of German unification.
Japan also had its own chance at the time. But our diplomats failed miserably to capitalize on the opportunity. Our chance will come again—when Russia is once more facing a crisis.
We must continue to astutely bide our time until then, waiting for the right opportunity to take action. The important thing for Japan is to maintain the vigor and mettle needed to win this long and tough battle. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 854 in the June 6, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)