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Japanese tour of disputed islands holds out hope of progress with Russia

Russian-held Southern Kurils could become focus of cross-border free-travel zone

| Japan
Visitors from Japan arrive at Russian-held Kunashiri Island on Oct. 30: it was the first ever by Japanese tourists to the disputed islands.   © Kyodo

The arrival of Japanese tourists on the Southern Kuril Islands, which are held by Russia but claimed by Japan, represents a significant development in the countries' long-standing territorial dispute. Yet if this pilot trip is to become more than a historical footnote, it must be quickly expanded into a regular series of visits -- and this will require concessions from Japan.

In general, little ever seems to change in Japan's dispute with Russia. For seven decades, Japanese governments have claimed that, in the final days of the second world war, the Soviet Union illegally occupied the four islands off the northeast coast of Hokkaido.

Conversely, Moscow asserts that the Soviet Union's victory over Japan gives Russia sovereign rights to the territory. With the sides unable to bridge this gap, the status of the islands remains contested and a Japan-Russia peace treaty has still not been signed.

Given this customary stagnation, the pilot trip, which took 44 Japanese tourists and officials to the disputed islands from October 30 to November 2, is remarkable. Admittedly, things did not go entirely smoothly. The trip was initially planned for October 9 but was postponed by the Russian side for unexplained technical reasons.

Additionally, when it did go ahead, it was cut short by bad weather. The price of 330,000 yen per person ($3,000) was eye-watering for a trip that featured few notable sites and fewer luxuries.

Nonetheless, the fact that the visit was accomplished at all is an achievement. It was the first ever by Japanese tourists to the Russian-held islands. What is more, since Russian visas were not required, from a legal perspective the trip was conducted as if the group were simply visiting another part of Hokkaido.

The visit is a bright spot in Prime Minister Abe's hitherto underwhelming Russia policy. Since returning to power in December 2012, Abe has made relations with Moscow a priority.

Even after Western countries shunned Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Japan was quick to resume engagement. Until now, Abe has had little to show for his 27 meetings with Russia's president, but he can now claim that his efforts are bearing fruit.

Abe is still sometimes portrayed as a Japanese nationalist, but his foreign policy is actually highly pragmatic. He has recognized the futility of pressing for the rapid return of all four islands. Instead, his goal has become to maximize Japanese access through joint economic projects and expanded humanitarian exchanges.

Tourists from Japan take a guided walk along the beach of Russian-held Kunashiri Island on Oct. 30: Russian visas are not required.   © Kyodo

This is a creative strategy that could prove transformative. Under previous governments, Japan has restricted its activities on the islands for fear of acknowledging Russian jurisdiction. While understandable as a point of principle, the result has been to isolate the islands from neighboring Hokkaido, which lies just four kilometers away at its closest point.

Abandoning this approach, Abe intends to use joint economic projects to encourage a steady flow of Japanese people to visit and contribute to life on the disputed territory. This will not secure the return of the islands, but it will achieve the return of Japanese to them.

Furthermore, there is the hope that joint projects will shape the attitudes of the 18,000 Russian residents of the Southern Kurils. As these islanders' interactions with Japan grow and as their livelihoods become dependent on tourism, they will become a small but important constituency in favor of maintaining Japanese access to the islands.

None of this will happen, however, if the recent trip remains a one-off. This is a risk since the Russian side permitted it as an exception. If such tours are to continue, a proper legal framework is needed to permit free movement to the islands. For this, Russia will demand something in return.

The future of the joint projects therefore depends on Japan's willingness to grant Russians reciprocal access to Japanese territory. As a possible solution, President Vladimir Putin proposed creating a visa-free regime covering all of Hokkaido and the region of Sakhalin, which administers the disputed islands.

This would have established the necessary framework for cross-border activities but Japan balked at a scheme that implied that the islands were part of Sakhalin. The talks broke down in October.

The ball is therefore in Japan's court to propose an alternative. One possibility is to create a smaller free-travel zone covering just the islands and the neighboring area of Nemuro in Hokkaido. This would still be desirable for Russia since residents of the Southern Kurils are currently denied Japanese visas.

Critics will say that such a system rewards the occupiers of Japanese territory and is an admission of defeat in Japan's efforts to secure the return of the islands. There is some truth in this, yet politics is the art of the possible.

Japan has no prospect of securing the return of the disputed islands. It does, however, have the chance to create a soft border, providing Japanese citizens with access to the disputed territory and beginning the process of reintegrating the islands with the neighboring community of Nemuro. This is an opportunity that Japan should seize with both hands.

James D.J. Brown is Associate Professor and Academic Program Coordinator for International Affairs at Temple University, Japan Campus.

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