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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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One Day Till Japan-Russia Summit

Dec. 14, 2016

Tomorrow, Russian President Vladimir Putin begins a 2-day visit to Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will welcome Putin to his hometown in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and they will also hold talks in Tokyo.

The meeting of the 2 leaders has long been anticipated. Their talks will cover proposed economic cooperation, and a territorial issue concerning islands known as the Northern Territories.

Russia controls the 4 islands. Japan claims them. Japan's government maintains they are an inherent part of Japan’s territory and were illegally occupied after World War Two.

Abe hopes that the talks will help advance negotiations toward a peace treaty. The 2 countries never signed following the end of the War. A major hurdle has always been this territorial issue.

"I will meet Russia's president determined to reserve the issue during this generation," Abe said.

However, Putin expressed a hardline stance ahead of his visit.

"Russia has no territorial issues at all, and it's only Japan that believes it has a territorial dispute with Russia. We are ready to talk about this," Putin said.

The 2 sides are also expected to discuss an 8-point economic cooperation plan proposed by Abe earlier this year.


History of Territorial Issue

Japan and Russia have long negotiated the territorial issue.

Japan calls the 4 islands the Northern Territories, and maintains they are an inherent part of its territory. Russia says they became part of their country as a consequence of war.

In the final year of World War Two, the former Soviet Union declared war on Japan and occupied the islands. The Japanese government says it was a violation of a neutrality pact.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin then annexed the islands and deported 17,000 Japanese.

A decade later, Japan and Russia resumed diplomatic relations. But the islands remained a sticking point and leaders agreed to continue talks on signing a peace treaty.

In the years since, Moscow has been building infrastructure for the Russians who call the islands home. Currently, about 16,000 people live there.

As the leaders of both countries changed, both sides continued their discussions over the dispute, off and on. But neither has budged on its stance.

In 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement saying "the two governments aim to finally resolve the issue." Since then, they've held 11 summits.

"We agreed to accelerate our talks to draw up solutions acceptable for both sides," Abe said.

Abe proposed what he calls "a new approach" to Putin.

"If we continue on like this, this very same discussion will continue for yet more decades to come," Abe said. "Vladimir, shall our generation have the courage to fulfil our responsibilities?"

Putin welcomes stronger economic ties but has been cautious about referring to the territorial issue.

"Both countries are hoping and making efforts to settle the issues, but I can't yet say when or how or even if we can achieve it at all," Putin said.

He has also said nothing new when it comes to the islands.

"As the result of the war, the islands are under Russia's sovereignty," Putin said.

Abe too knows the road ahead is not a smooth one.

"The path toward achieving the goal is now in sight, but the 'mountain' has to be climbed one step at a time," Abe said.

The big question now is whether these 2 leaders can achieve something their predecessors couldn't.


Hopes for Islands

For former residents of the islands and their families, the issue still looms large.

Makoto Eizuka lived in the Northern Territories at the time of the Soviet invasion.

His grandfather was a fisherman and the waters had plenty of salmon, trout, and cod, so the family lived well. But their lives were turned upside down immediately after World War Two.

At the time, Eizuka was a 21-year-old soldier stationed on the island of Shikotan. One day, a large black ship approached carrying Soviet troops.

"Off the coast, there was this large ship flying a reddish-brown flag. A few boats were lowered to the water. They were each carrying 7 or 8 people, who came ashore," Eizuka says.

The invasion of the Islands began on August 18, 1945. More Soviet troops arrived and by September 4, they had occupied the Northern Territories.

Eizuka was captured and deported to Siberia, where his comrades died from cold and starvation. Eizuka was held for several months, put on trial, and sentenced to death.

He was brought to the gallows, where one soldier approached him.

"He had a long gun with a bayonet. He was given a signal, and then stabbed me in the thigh," Eizuka recalls.

He later woke up in a hospital bed. To this day, he doesn't know why he wasn't executed but he still has the scar.

"My leg aches when I walk," he says.

Putin recognizes the validity of a joint declaration made by Japan and the Soviet Union in 1956. In it, the Soviets agree to hand over to Japan Shikotan Island and the Habomai Islands if a peace treaty were signed. However, Putin maintains that “the 4 islands are a part of Russia, as a result of the war.”

Now 92 years old, Eizuka wants the immediate return of the 4 islands, saying they were taken by force.

"Returning only 2 islands wouldn’t change anything, it wouldn’t make us happy," he says. "Until there’s a clear end to the dispute over the islands, I don’t think the war has truly ended."

Other people want to see some progress, and are not adamant about all four islands being returned together. One of them is Osamu Nishida, whose father lived on the islands.

"I've been twice -- the first time was with my father. It's a beautiful place," Nishida says.

Nishida's father was born and raised on Shikotan Island, and dreamed of returning to live there. But he died before that could happen.

Former residents are growing old. Their average age is 81, which is why Nishida wants the islands returned quickly ― even if it’s only 2 of them.

“All four islands are just a precondition. In viewing the past, I think it's possible to have other options. This deadlock has persisted for years, so it's most important to make progress, even if it's a small step,” Nishida says.

Former residents of the islands and their families have differing opinions about the return of the islands. They will be awaiting the results of Putin and Abe's meeting with great interest.

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NHK recently surveyed some of those former residents and their families. We asked how they feel the return of islands should proceed.

Forty-two percent of those who answered said they want 2 islands returned to Japan first, followed by negotiations on the other 2.

Thirty percent said they want all 4 islands returned at the same time. This used to be the most given reply. Back in 1991, nearly 70 percent were demanding the return of all the islands.


NHK World senior correspondent Jun Takao joins anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: The issue of the Northern Territories has remained unresolved for over 70 years. Do you think there were missed opportunities?

Takao: As you said, this is an issue that lasts for a long time and, yes, I agree with you that there have been several missed opportunities. Let's take a look at them one by one.

The first opportunity was the period of the so called “Khrushchev Thaw” after Stalin’s death. In 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union issued a joint declaration. This remains the most important agreement between Japan and Russia and is the basis of current negotiations.

The second opportunity was in the "perestroika" era, which was promoted by Gorbachev. He started to improve relations with Europe and the US. However, Gorbachev made his first visit to Japan in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. By then, he had little political power left, so we missed the chance.

The third opportunity was in 1997, when the Krasnoyarsk Agreement was signed. The leaders of Japan and Russia at the time agreed that by the year 2000, they would conclude a peace treaty that would include a resolution to the territorial issue. I was there at that time in Krasnoyarsk in East Siberia and clearly remember that, for a few years after this agreement, hopes for a settlement were really high.

And the fourth opportunity is, actually, now. In 2012, both Abe and Putin returned as leaders. Since Europe and the US imposed severe sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea 2 years ago, Russia accelerated shifting to the East, which caused too much economic dependence on China. Therefore, there are higher expectations for an improvement in relations with Japan in order to balance the situation in this area.

Beppu: So can we be optimistic that some sort of agreement can be reached, or do you think that we should rather be cautious?

Takao: It makes sense that some are optimistic. As I mentioned, one of the biggest chance was followed after the Krasnoyarsk Agreement. However, neither country was politically stable at that time. Yeltsin was in poor health and his influence was weakening. And the Japanese government was changing so frequently. But now again Russia is enthusiastic to improve relations with Japan and at this time both countries are politically stable. I would say that this may be the biggest chance in the past 7 decades.

Having said that, I don’t think there will be an immediate breakthrough. The Russian side has already made clear that the leaders will not sign any agreement during President Putin’s visit to Japan. We will see if the “new approach” proposed by Prime Minister Abe will begin to break the deadlock. Anyway, it is not the goal, but a start. We must be careful not to set our hopes too high.

Beppu: The US Obama administration was not particularly happy about Japan getting closer to Russia. But US President-elect Donald Trump is talking openly about improving relations with Russia. Could the change in the US policy complicate the matter?

Takao: Since Trump’s foreign policy is unclear, it’s hard to predict, but if you are asking me whether the problems stand to grow more complex, my answer is "yes." Historically, Russia showed its desire to improve relations with Japan when its relations with the US worsen. For example, in 1997, when the Krasnoyarsk Agreement was reached, NATO was expanding eastward, and relations between the US and Russia were really bad.

But when its relations with the US are good, for example, the period of the President Medvedev, Russia has only a secondary interest in Japan. Recently, Trump has praised President Putin, and repeatedly mentioned that he looks forward to improving relations with Russia. So I can’t deny the possibility that President Putin will focus his attention more on the US rather than on Japan.

Shibuya: The meeting is scheduled for tomorrow. What shall we pay attention to most?

Takao: There are 2 points. The first is whether 2 countries will move on to joint economic development activities in the Northern territories. Japan’s Foreign Ministry has been strongly against to allow economic activity in disputed islands under Russian law, because it would be recognizing Russian sovereignty. But Prime Minister Abe's “new approach” could find compromise in this position.

The second is whether Russia will inch toward accepting the “2 islands plus” concept. President Putin's position is that Russia’s maximum concession will be “the handover of the Habomai and Shikotan, which account for only 7 per cent of the islands’ land mass, after signing a peace treaty.” Will Putin alter his position and be willing to discuss the possibility of something more? Let's see if Japan and Russia will work towards a conciliatory approach in finding a solution, even though it could be painful for both sides.