Northern Territories Day on Feb. 7 came as the path of negotiations between Japan and Russia over sovereignty over the islands off Hokkaido has drastically changed and uncertainty is growing over the prospects for resolving the bilateral territorial dispute.
Feb. 7 was designated as Northern Territories Day as Japan and Russia agreed to draw a national border north of Etorofu Island, one of the four Russian-held islands, and signed the bilateral Treaty of Commerce and Navigation on Feb. 7, 1855.
A national rally demanding the return of the Northern Territories -- comprising Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets -- to Japan's sovereignty is held on Feb. 7 every year with the participation of former islanders.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told this year's rally that he handed letters written by former residents calling for an early settlement of the territorial dispute to Russian President Vladimir Putin in December last year and conveyed their feelings to the president. Putin reportedly read the letters enthusiastically.
However, no progress was made on the bilateral territorial issue during the Abe-Putin summit. Two-thirds of former islanders have already passed away and the average age of about 6,300 survivors is over 81. The outcome of the summit meeting came as a disappointment for the survivors and other Japanese nationals.
Still, attendees at the rally adopted a declaration expressing hope that a "new approach" that the two leaders agreed on will lead to a settlement of the dispute.
The Japanese and Russian governments should step up efforts to realize the former islanders' hopes.
The "new approach" differs significantly from past efforts in that the two countries have agreed to effectively shelve the issue of sovereignty over the four islands.
Prime Minister Abe explained that instead of getting caught up in the historical background behind the issue, the two countries will pursue a resolution while "painting a vision of the future of the four islands."
In other words, the new approach is aimed at strengthening mutual trust through joint projects and lead to conclusion of a peace treaty. However, if viewed from a different angle, the accord has posed a new challenge to launching fresh territorial talks.
The focal point of the issue for now is how to establish a framework for joint economic activities on the four islands. The Japanese ministries and agencies concerned have launched a meeting to prepare for the first round of official bilateral consultations on the matter scheduled for this coming March.
Japan, which sticks to its demand for a special accord to respect Japan's legal position that the four islands are inherently part of Japan's territory, will need to seek compromise with Russia, which insists that the country's legal system should apply to the islands.
Another pillar of the "new approach" is the expansion of opportunities for former islanders to visit their hometowns. Specifically, the two countries will explore the possibility of launching direct flights between Japan's mainland and the islands and allowing former islanders to stay on the islands for a long time. The two countries should respond to the earnest hope of the aging former residents.
Opinion polls conducted shortly after the Abe-Putin summit show that about 60 percent of the Japanese public supported the new approach. Still, critics are wary that the territorial issue, which is the core of Japan-Russia talks, could be left behind while humanitarian issues and economic cooperation is prioritized.
Prime Minister Abe, who is expected to visit Russia this coming spring and in September, appears enthusiastic about taking the initiative in bilateral talks. However, public support is indispensable for his attempt to "paint a vision of the future of the four islands." Tokyo needs to cautiously proceed with negotiations with Moscow while gaining broad understanding from the public.