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PM Abe avoids describing Russian-held Northern Territories as inherently Japanese

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe covers his face with his hands as he listens to questions in a House of Councillors plenary session on Jan. 31, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe avoided describing four Russian-held islands east of Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido as Japan's inherent territory at the beginning of the regular Diet session.

During plenary sessions of both chambers of the Diet for three days up to Feb. 1, the prime minister also declined to disclose the government's strategy for settling the dispute over the Northern Territories and signing a peace treaty with Russia. His low-key attitude is apparently intended to prevent Moscow from toughening its stance on the issue.

However, the opposition camp is poised to grill the government saying that the latter "has failed to fulfill its accountability to the public" on the longstanding territorial dispute. The then Soviet Union occupied the islands shortly after the end of World War II, and Moscow has controlled them ever since.

Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) criticized the government for its weak-kneed response to Russia.

"Russians say whatever they want to say. Can't you even express our own country's position?" he asked the prime minister at a House of Councillors plenary session on Feb. 1.

Fukuyama was irritated at the prime minister's lukewarm attitude toward the Russian government, which claims that Moscow "gained sovereignty over the Northern Territories as a result of World War II" and that "Russia obtained the islands legally."

In the upper house session, Prime Minister Abe said, "Our position that Japan has sovereignty over the Northern Territories remains unchanged." However, he declined to comment on the government's strategy for bilateral territorial negotiations, such as how many of the four islands Tokyo will demand that Moscow return. "If we were to mention such a thing outside negotiations, it would adversely affect our talks," the premier said.

At a House of Representatives plenary session on Jan. 30, CDP leader Yukio Edano asked if Abe regards the four islands as Japan's inherent territory. In response, the prime minister only repeated that "Japan has sovereignty" over the isles.

The following day, former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said, "Does your position that Russia occupies the islands illegally remain unchanged? Yesterday, I wasn't able to hear what you said well because you spoke unclearly." However, Abe answered by repeating his earlier remarks.

Previously, Prime Minister Abe had clearly expressed his view that the islands are "Japan's inherent territory" and that "Russia unlawfully occupies" the Northern Territories.

In the past, Russia threatened to suspend territorial talks with Japan due to remarks made by Japanese government officials over the issue. In 2009, then Prime Minister Taro Aso stated that Russia "illegally occupies" the Northern Territories, chilling bilateral ties.

"We have no choice but to respond to the issue cautiously," explained a close aide to the prime minister.

Tokyo is seeking to win the return of two smaller islands -- the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan -- and promote joint economic activities on the two larger islands -- Kunashiri and Etorofu. The 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration states that Moscow should return Habomai and Shikotan to Japan after signing a bilateral peace treaty.

However, a senior official of the opposition Democratic Party for the People has warned, "A departure from Japan's demand for the return of the four islands and any move to back away from its historical perception over the territorial issue could harm our national interests."

Opposition parties are attempting to make the Northern Territories a key point of contention during the ongoing regular Diet session ahead of the summer upper house election, especially amid rumors that the lower house may be dissolved for a simultaneous election.

(Japanese original by Yoshitaka Koyama, Political News Department)

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