Whenever Japanese and Russian leaders meet, the issue of what Japan refers to as the Northern Territories is unavoidable. This territorial dispute is the underlying factor in dealings between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- and continues to drive Abe for both personal and security reasons, despite dismal prospects for any solution.
But the issue has endured since August 1945, when Soviet forces occupied the islands after Japan announced its intention to surrender. It continues to prevent the signing of a bilateral peace treaty to formally end World War II.
All Japanese leaders have spoken of their desire to resolve this issue, but few have shown real determination to do so. One who did was Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who established a close personal relationship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the mid-1990s, holding two informal "no-necktie" summits in Krasnoyarsk and Kawana. The leaders started to call each other "Ryu" and "Boris," agreed to a six-point economic cooperation plan, and discussed joint economic activities on the disputed islands. Yet, despite pledging to sign a peace treaty by the year 2000, Yeltsin ultimately refused to make concessions.
History is now repeating itself. Abe has publicly committed to resolving the territorial dispute by the end of his time in office. To achieve this, he has sought to establish a "personal relationship of trust" with Putin. This has involved 20 meetings between "Shinzo" and "Vladimir," as the two have begun to call each other. Abe has also announced an eight-point economic cooperation plan and hosted Putin for an informal onsen (hot springs) summit in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi in December 2016. At that meeting, the sides agreed to discuss joint economic activities on the islands.
Although Abe may have until 2021 to fulfill his promise, 2018 will be a key year. At the end of May, Abe will travel to Russia to attend an economic forum in St. Petersburg, followed the next day by the opening ceremony of the "Year of Japan and Russia" at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. This is considered by Japanese officials to be good timing. By then, Putin is expected to have been re-elected as president and it is hoped he may be more favorably disposed to a territorial deal during what could be his final term. To lay the groundwork for this opportunity, Foreign Minister Taro Kono will meet his Russian counterpart on March 21, and Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, will travel to Moscow in April.
Despite the Japanese government devoting seemingly endless attention and political resources to this issue, few observers believe that Abe will have any more success than Hashimoto did. Around 17,000 Russians now live on the disputed islands and few desire Japanese rule. Putin has also spoken of his concern that Japan might allow U.S. military forces to be stationed on the islands if they were transferred. Opinion polls in Russia show that around 90% of the pubic believes that the islands should not be handed back. It would take a bold leader to defy such opposition.
Given these odds, what accounts for Abe's enduring commitment to the question of the Northern Territories, as they are known in Japan?
First, the islands represent an alluring prize. Although Shikotan and the neighboring Habomai islets are small, the two larger islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri (or Iturup and Kunashir, as they are known in Russia) are not. Collectively, the landmass of the disputed islands is twice the size of Okinawa Prefecture and 700 times larger than the Senkaku Islands. The islands also feature reserves of the valuable rhenium metal and are surrounded by rich fishing grounds.
Second, the islands represent an emotive issue for nationalist politicians, including Abe. The islands had a Japanese population of 17,291 when they were seized by the Soviet Union in 1945. These islanders were forcibly expelled and most took up residence in nearby Hokkaido. Only around 6,000 are alive today and it is unrealistic to expect that any of them, with an average age of over 80, will return to live on the remote islands. Nonetheless, Abe has sought to make it easier for this community to return for visits. In 2017, the former residents and their relatives made a landmark visit to the islands by charter flight, complementing special visa-free boat trips that operate during the summer.
But the Northern Territories is not a priority for most Japanese. While 81.5% have at least some knowledge of the dispute, only 3.2% would campaign actively for the islands' return, according to Cabinet Office data. Few Japanese show interest in the annual Northern Territories Day on Feb. 7. Indeed, even Japan's new state minister for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, who was appointed to the position on Feb. 27, inadvertently revealed ignorance about the islands' names. There is therefore little political gain to be had by concentrating on this issue.
Rather than being driven by domestic political calculations, Abe's devotion to this topic is personal. He wishes to fulfill the political ambitions of his father, Shintaro Abe, who as foreign minister in the mid-1980s prioritized the normalization of relations with the Soviet Union. Such was the elder Abe's commitment that after leaving office and being hospitalized with a terminal illness, he had himself brought in a wheelchair to meet Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during his visit to Japan in April 1991. He died less than a month later.
Besides honoring his father's memory, Abe has ambitions of his own. He has often spoken of his desire to put an end to the "postwar regime," which he believes has prevented Japan from functioning as a great power. This explains his determination to revise the "pacifist" constitution. It also informs his eagerness to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia since this, too, represents an unwelcome reminder of Japan's defeat.
Finally, the rise of China, missile threat from North Korea, and relative decline of the U.S. are driving Japan to new efforts to eliminate problems with Russia. Above all, in this dangerous security environment, Japan wants to ensure that Russia is not driven by isolation from the West into forging an anti-Japanese bloc with China. However, in cultivating security ties with Russia, the territorial dispute remains a persistent obstacle. Were it to be removed, Japan would gain additional strategic options.
It is probable that Abe will have little success in achieving a final resolution to this issue. The best he can hope for is increased access to the islands for Japanese citizens and businesses under a special legal framework. Even this is far from guaranteed. While Abe may be remembered as a transformative leader in other regards, he is likely to come up short when it comes to the Northern Territories.
James D.J. Brown is an associate professor in political science at Temple University in Tokyo and a specialist on Russo-Japanese relations.