With talks looming on the horizon with Russia over the sovereignty of the disputed Northern Territories off the coast of Hokkaido, the Abe administration seems unclear on its position.
Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is scheduled to visit Russia as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's special envoy in February. But on Jan. 9 Mori mentioned the potential return of only three of the islands, which is at odds with Japan's official position seeking the return of all four islands.
"It would be best to put it here," Mori said on Jan. 9, as he drew a line south of Etorofu Island on a map during a TV appearance.
The gesture indicated a proposal to have only three islands--the Habomai islets, Shikotan and Kunashiri--returned to Japan, conceding the northernmost Etorofu to Russia. The islands were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and claimed by Tokyo.
As the prime minister's special envoy, any remark made by Mori could be perceived as coming from Abe.
During a Jan. 10 news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga tried to stamp out any such speculation by emphasizing that Mori will be presenting only the basic government stance during his visit to Russia.
Suga also said Abe, back in office for a second stint, will abide by the standing of previous government administrations on the issue.
"We will stick firmly to the policy of seeking to settle the issue of the sovereignty of the four northern islands and to sign a peace treaty," Suga said. "We will be flexible about when they will be returned."
That indicates that Tokyo will not necessarily insist on the immediate lump sum return of all four islands as long as Moscow endorses Japan's sovereignty claim to them.
But that is also at odds with the official government position.
Abe said during an interview with Tokyo Broadcasting System Television on Dec. 30 that his basic stance remains the return of all four islands. Questioned about the difference, Suga insisted during the Jan. 10 news conference that he didn't see any inconsistency.
All this vacillating within the new administration arises from a difficulty in setting a policy on how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has expressed willingness to settle the dispute with Japan.
Putin used the Japanese word "hikiwake" (tie or draw), during an interview with The Asahi Shimbun and other media organizations in March 2012, adding that he wanted to see a final resolution of the territorial dispute.
Given Mori's close ties with Putin, some analysts took the former prime minister's remark as a proposal for a compromise to lay the groundwork for Abe's prospective visit to Russia.
This is not the first time Tokyo has floated a compromise plan. Previous proposals include having the Habomai and Shikotan islands returned ahead of the other two islands, over which talks would continue; the so-called return of 3.5 islands to divide the landmass equally; and mutual confirmation of Japan's sovereignty over all four islands, which Russia would continue to administer for the time being.
Such ideas came partly because the settlement of more Russians is making it more difficult every year to have all four islands returned, and partly also because Tokyo hopes to deepen economic ties with Moscow on energy and other fronts after settling the territorial issue.
But any compromise on the part of Japan, which has consistently accused Russia of illegal occupation, would necessitate backstage dealings. Such dealings have sowed discord over Japan-Russia relations.
The Abe administration, which is at loggerheads with China over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, is putting an emphasis on forming cooperative ties with other neighboring nations. It therefore cannot afford to engage in contentious negotiations with Russia to settle the territorial dispute.
Abe talked to Putin in a Dec. 28 telephone call, only two days after Abe was chosen as prime minister for the second time, and expressed his willingness to strengthen ties in areas other than the territorial dispute.
"I want to cooperate with you in all fields, including security and a mutually beneficial economic cooperation, including in the Russian Far East and Siberia," Abe was quoted as telling Putin.
Putin stressed a need to instruct the foreign ministries of both countries to speed up work on a bilateral peace treaty.
One senior official with the Japanese Foreign Ministry said hasty negotiations could force Japan into giving up the return of all four islands.
"There is no way but to think that 'hikiwake' means concessions by both parties," the official said.
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