TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared buoyant, and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori interpreted that good mood as a sign that Abe made up his mind about something big -- the Northern Territories, the four islands off the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido claimed by Tokyo but controlled by Moscow.
"Mr. Putin was concerned about your heath, asking if you are OK," Abe revealed to Mori on Nov. 19 at the prime minister's office, five days after he agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to accelerate negotiations over the territories and a peace treaty. As the basis for the negotiations, the agreement in Singapore chose the 1956 Joint Declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union -- Russia's predecessor state -- that promises two of the four islands, Habomai and Shikotan, would be returned after a peace treaty was signed.
The declaration makes no mention of the remaining two, bigger islands -- Etorofu and Kunashiri. Mori, who also pursued the initial return of Habomai and Shikotan by proposing a "parallel negotiation" dealing also with the attribution of the remaining two islands, is not alone in wondering if Abe gave up getting back all four territories, and is settling for just the two.
Within the Abe administration, a "two plus alpha" initiative about the territories is quickly gaining momentum. The initiative limits the target of territorial negotiations to just Habomai and Shikotan, and intends to organize joint economic activities on Kunashiri and Etorofu islands.
"Russia will never return Kunashiri and Etorofu, where it is pushing for militarization," asserts a senior administration official, implying that the two plus alpha is the direction to go. Another individual close to the premier's office revealed that the Abe administration has been negotiating since 2016 to carry out joint economic activities on those islands "as a preparatory move for the two plus alpha." A close aid to the prime minister is trying to persuade people seeking a full return of the islands by saying that past approaches failed to move the Russians "even by a millimeter," according to people knowledgeable about the matter.
In any case, Abe seems bent on advancing the territorial talks. "Why don't we instruct those handling the matter here and now?" Abe was quoted as telling Putin during their Singapore summit, according to a person familiar with the situation. The two leaders let four subordinates into the room they were negotiating only with interpreters -- from the Japanese side, national security secretariat secretary general Shotaro Yachi and Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Takeo Akiba; from the Russian side, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and presidential aide for foreign affairs Yuri Ushakov. Abe and Putin ordered them to start negotiations based on the agreement.
"This is a hidden achievement of the summit," says an individual close to the government. "The territorial talks will start moving."
--- Poll results made premier confident about his 'two plus alpha' initiative
The 1956 joint declaration was negotiated by Shunichi Matsumoto and Yakov Malik, both eminent diplomats representing Tokyo and Moscow, respectively. Abe said he had read the entire record of their negotiations during the September presidential election for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. "They had secret negotiations, too. We need to explore what kind of settlement is possible," said Abe. Apparently, he already had a proposal for the Singapore summit in mind back then.
During the talks leading up to the 1956 declaration, the Soviet Union insisted that the four islands, which it occupied shortly after World War II, were its own, and offered to transfer Habomai and Shikotan. The minimum goal for Japan during the negotiations was the return of the two islands and a continued discussion on the remaining two. The joint declaration, however, only states that the Habomai and Shikotan islands would be "handed over" after the conclusion of a peace treaty between the two countries; no reference was made to Kunashiri and Etorofu.
Abe, who apparently seeks the "two plus alpha" initiative, wanted to sound out Japanese public opinion by mentioning the joint declaration at the summit, said a person close to the prime minister's office. A Mainichi Shimbun opinion poll conducted on Nov. 17 and 18, after the Abe-Putin meeting, showed that 55 percent were supportive of getting two of the Northern Territories returned first, while only 27 percent opposed the idea. The result, said the individual, "must have deepened the premier's confidence in the two islands option."
Abe's position, however, angered people like Hiroshi Kimura, professor emeritus of Hokkaido University and a specialist in Russian politics. "The grand policy of signing a peace treaty after making possible the return of the four islands was essentially changed," said Kimura.
In the early 1990s, Tokyo changed its goal from seeking the return of all of the four islands in one package, to "the settlement of the issue of attribution for the four islands." In the 1993 Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia Relations, all of the four islands were mentioned as targets for negotiations. In the 2001 Irkutsk Statement, the 1956 joint declaration was regarded as "a basic legal document that established the starting point in the negotiation process for the conclusion of a peace treaty subsequent to the restoration of diplomatic relations between both countries," emphasizing its continuity with the Tokyo Declaration.
When asked about apparent discrepancies between his position and the preceding position held by Tokyo to seek the return of four islands, Abe told reporters on Nov. 16, "We will negotiate on the attribution of the four islands. It does not contradict the past policy at all."
Meanwhile, Putin emphasized in recent years that Kunashiri and Etorofu are out of the boundaries of the negotiations, in an apparent bid to distance himself from the Tokyo and Irkutsk documents that said all of the four islands are open for talks. The Russian side, therefore, sees Abe's agreement with Putin to base future negotiations on the 1956 declaration as a "compromise from the Japanese side."
The next day after the Singapore agreement was reached, Putin said that the joint declaration did not mention how Habomai and Shikotan would be returned, emphasizing that the return of the two islands are not a fait accompli.
Kimura of Hokkaido University accused Abe's position, saying that there is no reason for Japan to have to settle with "two islands minus alpha." But Abe told a press conference that he will settle the territorial disputes and conclude a peace treaty. "I am determined to complete the negotiations for the peace treaty," Abe said. An individual close to the government explained, "The prime minister is bent on settling the issue."
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