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Koizumi-Putin Summit to Discuss Territorial Dispute

After attending the APEC leaders' summit in South Korea, Russia's president visits Japan. During his three-day stay, Vladimir Putin is to meet with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other Japanese officials. The two leaders are not expected to take progress on a bitter territorial dispute.

For Russia and Japan, World War II has technically never ended. The two countries for 60 years have failed to sign a peace treaty because of their disagreement over ownership over four small islands in the north Pacific.

To the Russians, the disputed islands are the Kurils. The Japanese call them the Northern Territories.

Immediately after Japan surrendered in August 1945, the Soviet Army seized the islands, but Japan still claims them. Despite extensive negotiations since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the two countries have not been able to resolve the territorial dispute.

Spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi at the Japanese Foreign Ministry says Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in a recent interview on Russian radio, cautioned against expecting significant progress on the issue during his meeting with Mr. Putin.

"He was not pessimistic. But he was not optimistic enough to envision that an easy solution will come out any time soon. And he reiterated that by solving the territorial issue both nations are going to be able to move on to the next step to have the peace treaty," said spokesman Taniguchi.

There is another party claiming the islands. They are the Ainu, an indigenous people who were ousted from the Kurils and surrounding areas over the centuries by Russians and Japanese. Most live on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido.

The head of an Ainu organization, Tadashi Kato, says his group delivered petitions this month to the Russian and Japanese governments.

Mr. Kato say his group has repeatedly appealed to both governments and now they want Moscow and Tokyo to receive the same message - that the four islands "are neither Russian nor Japanese land." He says there is evidence in bilateral agreements over the centuries to back that claim.

Professor Kazuyoshi Ohtsuka, of Osaka Gakuin University, one of Japan's top experts on the Ainu, says the Japanese government was traditionally a proponent of Ainu fishing rights when it was in Tokyo's interest. But these days, he says, the Japanese government discriminates against the Ainu and does not recognize historical agreements granting them territorial rights.

Japanese officials are not sympathetic to the Ainu position.

"That is not the position of the Japanese government," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi.

Russian media quote officials in Moscow as being equally dismissive of the Ainu claims.

Because the island dispute is seen as intractable, Mr. Putin is expected to spend most of his three days in Japan talking about other issues. High on the agenda will be the growing trade between the two countries, especially Japanese purchases of Russian oil and gas.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.
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