The “Dam” in Russo-Japanese Relations


Blessed with a cornucopia of produce from the North Sea and marketing itself as a center for gastro-tourism, it would be no exaggeration to describe Nemuro City, Hokkaido as Japan’s kitchen. Located in the city closest to the rising sun, Nemuro Hanasaki Port is a hub for trade with Russia.

Another significant side to Nemuro is the fact that it is home to many first-, second- and third-generation former inhabitants of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and Habomai, which are part of Japanese territory, and the grassroots of the movement demanding the return of the Northern Territories are located here. Located in eastern Hokkaido, Nemuro tends to be seen as presenting two different aspects that are polar opposites: whilst this area surrounded by Hokkaido’s great outdoors is the center of burgeoning economic interaction with Russia, focused mainly on the fishing industry, it is at the heart of the Northern Territories issue, which is a matter of national dignity and the national interest, as well as the identity of the Japanese. In other words, it is ground zero in this long-term dispute between Russia and Japan, the tackling of which cannot be avoided if there is to be progress in developing friendship between the two countries in the future.

The Japan-Russia Action Plan, which is also described as the roadmap for relations between Japan and Russia in the future, was concluded by Prime Minister Koizumi and President Putin in Moscow in January 2003. This plan consists of six major areas: i) the deepening of political dialogue; ii) negotiations concerning a peace treaty; iii) cooperation on the international stage; iv) cooperation in the fields of trade and the economy; v) the development of relations in the fields of defense and security; and vi) the development of cultural exchange and interaction between the people of the two countries. Quite simply, it should be seen as a fundamental concept for promoting the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and Russia and the construction of amicable, mutually beneficial relationships in the future. If this is the case, it is proof that the governments of both countries believe that it is preferable to pursue a policy of trying to solve the territorial dispute and conclude a peace treaty, while building the foundations for mutual understanding and mutual benefits in parallel with this, as well as promoting interaction at the private sector level in a variety of fields.

This is closely connected with the situation in Nemuro. One cannot help but feel that Nemuro truly is a scaled-down version of the current state of play between Japan and Russia, being the scene of cooperation and conflict, economic exchange and political dialogue, all of which has been built on the platform of foreign relations at the private sector level.

In September last year, I participated in a mission to Russia organized by the Japan Junior Chamber and, while accompanying Japanese university students in Moscow and St Petersburg, who were taking part in voluntary activities with the aim of promoting Russo-Japanese exchange, I noticed that very few Russian people were aware of the existence of the territorial issue and the historical facts, and that most were interested in economic exchange and international cooperation. While attending a conference, I compared the relationship between Japan and Russia to a dam. As a citizen of Nemuro, I gave my opinion on the issue; I likened the many national benefits that both countries will enjoy to a reservoir, with the adverse historical legacy of the territorial issue acting as a massive bung blocking up the outlets used for discharging water. The water, in the form of true friendship in the future, is still being stored in large quantities and has immense potential; by extension, Russia, which is part of Asia, has the power to make a significant contribution to the international community as a whole, along with Japan, so I am confident that a swift solution to the territorial issue fits in with the national interests of both countries. More specifically, I had the opportunity to express my own opinions, to the best of my knowledge, covering such matters as exchange between Hokkaido and Sakhalin, and the current status of initiatives relating to the development of Sakhalinfs oilfields being undertaken by the Japanese government and Japanese companies, as well as the deep-seated sense of homesickness experienced by former residents of the islands.

The chaotic relationship between Japan and Russia has altered considerably over the last ten years, but the governments are still skirting around the main issue. At the level of individuals and private sector companies, particularly small- and medium-sized businesses, most cases of exchange are becoming tangible precisely because of efforts and compromises on both sides.

It is rather an extreme view, but by solving the territorial issue and signing a peace treaty, mutually beneficial economic exchange will begin to take shape and Russia will come to view Japan as a respected partner in the international community; it is precisely this that will enable the Japanese people to become a people with a cosmopolitan identity and the Japanese government to become a state that can fulfill an important role in the international community. It is not that this would automatically happen as a result; however, one could say that it would be proof that it had the potential to become such a state

Last month, a group of executives from major private-sector marine produce companies in Russia’s Kamchatskaya oblast, including the vice-president of the local chamber of commerce and industry, visited Nemuro and held talks with members of the municipal administration of Nemuro, as well as representatives of the local marine produce association, chamber of commerce and industry, and private sector companies. More specifically, I’ve heard that positive, constructive talks took place over a long period of time, focusing on particular species of fish. Further development is anticipated in the future.

We need to build a mutually beneficial relationship that is in alignment with the national interests of both countries, without warping the vectors of the vision for the solution of the territorial issue and the development of friendship in a broad-ranging relationship between Russia and Japan in the future. In order to do so, I believe that, rather than discussing regulatory frameworks, the important thing is to be more proactive in how we create approaches to international relations at the private sector level, such as economic, cultural and interpersonal exchanges.

In comprehensively evaluating the foregoing viewpoints, I believe that it is important that the Japanese government is more effective and efficient in making use of regions where exchange with Russia is already flourishing and where the regional economy is already closely linked with that of Russia: these include Wakkanai, which is increasing its efforts to promote economic exchange alone, and Otaru and Hakodate, which are active in various areas, including tourism and trade, not to mention Nemuro, the city with two aspects. Furthermore, I believe that collaboration among the government, local authorities and private sector companies will be essential in conducting diplomacy with Russia in the future.

[Translated by ERINA]