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Saturday, March 30, 2002

Japan's faulty north bearing

Former senior Liberal Democratic Party politician Muneo Suzuki is in disgrace for alleged improper dealings. But Foreign Ministry efforts to blacken his name further by selectively revealing details of his attempts to change the ministry's hardline Northern Territories policy go too far.

The hardline policy has long said that in exchange for better relations with Japan Moscow must return all four of the island territories to the east of Hokkaido, which Soviet forces occupied with full Allied approval in 1945.

In other words, Moscow must return not only the Habomai island group and Shikotan, which before 1945 were administratively part of Hokkaido, but also the much larger territories of Etorofu and Kunashiri, which are part of the Kurile Islands archipelago to which Japan clearly renounced all right, claim and title under Article 2(c) of its 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with the Allies.

Suzuki advocated what is known as the two-track approach to the problem: Tokyo would secure the return of the Habomais and Shikotan, where its legal claim is strong. Separately, it would also try to negotiate some kind of future concession over Etorofu and Kunashiri, where its legal claim is much weaker because of what had happened in 1951.

The Suzuki approach made sense. Although Japan in 1951 may have been loath to renounce its claim to the Kuriles, especially Etorofu and Kunashiri, the United States in 1945 at Yalta had promised this territory to the Soviet Union in exchange for a Soviet attack on Japan.

In 1951 Washington was involved in delicate talks with Moscow to gain U.N. Security Council approval for U.S. ownership of Guam and Saipan. It could not afford to be seen as reneging on its Yalta promises. Indeed, it even cast some doubt on Japan's claim to the Habomias and Shikotan. Tokyo's complaints about having to renounce Etorofu and Kunashiri were ignored.

As negotiations got under way between Tokyo and Moscow after 1951 for a separate peace treaty, Moscow rather generously agreed, both in 1953 and 1956, that it could return the Habomais and Shikotan as part of a treaty deal. But both times hardliners in Japan's Foreign Ministry and elsewhere intervened to demand the return of Etorofu and Kunashiri as well. In 1956, the U.S. also began to strongly back the Etorofu-Kunashiri demand, ignoring what it had done in 1951. Negotiations with Moscow were aborted.

A crucial part of the ministry's anti-Suzuki campaign was a leaked document claiming he had once told a ministry official that Japan should abandon its entire Northern Territories claim. Japan's unthinking media immediately denounced him as a traitor to the national interest.

But the ministry document has to be palpable nonsense. For if Suzuki was trying so hard to bring Japan round to a two-track approach (he had even managed to convince former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori), why would he be advocating no-track?

Someone should ask the same leak-happy ministry about the many 1951 Peace Treaty-related documents it holds, which show clearly it was well aware that, in San Francisco, Japan was being forced to sign away Etorofu and Kunashiri. (Even the Foreign Ministry admits that 36 of these documents relate directly to Tokyo's efforts to persuade Washington of Japan's position).

Under the 30-year disclosure rule Tokyo would normally have to release these documents. So far it has refused, no doubt because they would directly undercut Tokyo's current claims about Etorofu and Kunashiri.

The ministry also leaked a document showing how Suzuki vented anger against a ministry official who refused to sign the Russian quarantine documents needed for the import of some cherry trees Suzuki wanted planted on Kunashiri back in 1996. According to the ministry's ever-vigilant legalists, to have signed such a document would somehow have implied Japanese acceptance of Russian sovereignty over the island.

Strangely the same legalism disappears whenever one asks the ministry to explain why its top legalist, the head of its own Treaties Bureau, Kumao Nishimura, told a Diet questioner on Oct. 19, 1951, that the Kurile Islands, which Japan renounced so unequivocally at San Francisco, did in fact include Etorofu and Kunashiri.

Here ministry twistings and turnings make even Suzuki's efforts to explain his illicit political funding look pallid. The Nishimura statement is firmly embedded in the record of Diet proceedings. Under international law, a considered statement before the national parliament by the relevant top Foreign Ministry official is a lot more definitive than the signature of a minor ministry official at the bottom of a cherry tree quarantine document. But place the verbatim record of the Nishimura statement before the eyes of the ministry's best and brightest, and they will look as if you had hit them with a wet fish.

Suzuki's anger over the cherry tree incident is understandable. For if Japan is to overcome the weak legal position imposed on it by the U.S. and other Allied nations, Australia especially, in 1951, then its only hope today is to use the relationships created by planting cherry trees and so on to gradually wean Etorofu and Kunashiri away from distant Moscow and toward nearby Japan.

Thanks to the ministry's contrived legalism, even this possibility is being undercut. With Suzuki in the wilderness and the small group in the Foreign Ministry supporting his efforts disgraced, Japan has returned to its Cold War position of demanding all four territories.

Meanwhile, Russian popular and parliamentary opinion wants a return to Moscow's post-1958 position of denying there is any territorial problem with Japan in the first place. And Moscow is refusing Tokyo's recent embrace of the two-track approach, suspecting that with Suzuki out of the way the approach would be used simply to provide a more convenient channel for Tokyo to push its Etorofu-Kunashiri claim.

The Russians, it seems, have decided that where territory is involved it is impossible to get any sense out of Tokyo. They could be right.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and honorary president of Tama University. He was also a member of former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka's private discussion group on foreign policy matters.

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