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Editorial: Foreign minister dodging press questions on Northern Territories problematic

Foreign Minister Taro Kono has categorically refused to explain the government's basic position on upcoming negotiations with Russia on Japan's Northern Territories, which Tokyo claims but Moscow controls. His stance on the matter became a glaring problem at a press conference on Dec. 11.

The Northern Territories, four islands northeast of Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, were occupied by Soviet Union forces even after the end of World War II in 1945. Kono was asked about a remark by his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that it will be "impossible to discuss anything" about the islands unless Japan recognizes the outcome of the war. The Japanese foreign minister simply responded by saying, "Next question, please," ignoring the question entirely.

Related questions followed, but Kono did not answer them and repeated, "Next question, please." When pressed why he was responding in such a way, he also said, "Next question, please."

One cannot help but feel his arrogance in such blunt replies. The reporters slapped the foreign minister with a written complaint seeking a "sincere response."

Kono faced criticism in the recently concluded extraordinary session of the Diet by refusing to explain even the basic position of the Japan government ahead of the territorial negotiations. "It will not serve the interest of Japan to reveal the cards in our hand to the public," he explained.

Press conferences are occasions for the government to disclose its basic policies to the people. While we understand the difficulties associated with the sensitive territorial talks, the subject on hand is the negotiation of Japan's sovereignty, which is linked to the interests of its citizens. The problem cannot be solved without the understanding and support of the public. One has to wonder if the foreign minister is aware of this point.

U.S. President Donald Trump openly calls mainstream media critical of him the "enemy of the people." He sees them as interfering with the execution of his administration's policies.

Foreign Minister Kono was appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to lead the negotiations with Russia over the Northern Territories. Perhaps he feels the immense pressure that comes with the important assignment that bears grave responsibilities. However, it would be disappointing if he thought media questions about the territorial issue are an obstacle to the negotiations.

Moscow insists that the four islands belong to Russia. If Kono remains mum in order not to provoke Russia, the situation will be far from being balanced. At the same time, Kono has been tough on South Korea, which also has a territorial dispute with Japan. The stark contrast between the foreign minister's two attitudes cannot evade criticism that he is applying a double standard.

Many politicians in the Abe administration, including the prime minister himself and Finance Minister Taro Aso, tend to evade questions or refuse to give direct answers in the Diet or at press conferences. Was Kono not a politician who stressed the importance of freedom of information and accountability for those in power?

In response to the reporters' complaint, the foreign minister issued a statement saying he would accept the criticism "seriously," but he should certainly reflect this in his actions accordingly.

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