Ksenia Samoilenko – The problem of the Northern Islands in the reflection of the Japanese media

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The mentality of Russians and Japanese has many things in common – intense inner feelings, a tendency to sometimes hidden increased emotionality and reflection, the desire to let life’s vicissitudes through psychological filters, “soft passion”, no matter how unusual such an oxymoron might look like. But why does mistrust of the Russians dominate the Japanese national consciousness? After all, neither the Soviet Union nor Russia are involved in the terrible crimes against humanity.

The main reason for the negative mood of the Japanese regarding Russia’s foreign policy is the territorial dispute over the ownership of the South Kuril Islands. The “Northern Territory Problem” is a catalyst for the Japanese media to display antipathy towards Russian politics.

The “Northern Territory Problem” is a territorial dispute between Japan and Russia that has been unsettled since the end of World War II.  After the war, all the Kuril Islands were included in the USSR, however, the ownership of the Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan islands and the group of Habomai islands is disputed by Japan, which considers them an occupied part of the country.  The area of the disputed islands is 5 thousand km², the total area of the disputed territory, including the 200-mile economic zone, is approximately 200 thousand km².  Russia claims that its sovereignty over the southern Kuril Islands is absolutely legal and not subject to doubt and discussion, and states that it does not recognize the fact of a territorial dispute with Japan.  The issue of ownership of the southern Kuril Islands is the main obstacle to the full settlement of Russian-Japanese relations and the signing of a peace treaty. ”

For several decades, the Information and Research Bureau under the Cabinet of Ministers of Japan regularly conducts opinion polls on foreign policy issues, including the issue of relations with Russia.  And the place of Russia in the public consciousness of the Japanese is radically different from the place of Japan in the minds of Russians.

According to the research of the All-Russian omnibus GfK until 2010, the sympathies and antipathies of the Japanese did not undergo significant changes and remained at approximately the same level.  A surge of sympathy occurred in 1990–1991.  (23.3–24.3%), when the public consciousness was captured by M.S.  Gorbachev (“Gorbi”) and his ideas of perestroika.  The next, although less noticeable, increase in sympathy was observed after the election of Russian President V. Putin and his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in Irkutsk in 2001. This was another rise in expectations of positive changes.

During the acute crisis in relations (2010–2011), the proportion of those who did not feel sympathy for Russia increased from 79.6% to 82.9%, and those who felt sympathy decreased from 15.4% to 13  ,4%.  And only in 2012, the attitude of the Japanese towards Russia improved by 7.1%.

In 2013–2015  there was a “Crimean” collapse: the share of sympathizers in Russia fell from 22.5% to 17.4%, while the share of ill-wishers and indifferents increased from 74.7% to 79.3%.

A shocking impression was made by the results of a survey conducted in Japan in 2014: Russia was the leader in the list of countries that the “most dislike” the Japanese.

By joining the Crimea to Russia and the events in Ukraine, the Japanese, by analogy with the Kuril Islands, were painful, and anti-Russian sentiments were artificially fueled by the media. According to some Japanese media reports, on the political sidelines of Japan they began to seriously discuss the topic of “exchange” – Russia’s transfer of the Kuril Islands in exchange for recognition of the Crimea.  Such scenarios leave a strange feeling: the lifting of sanctions by the Japanese side alone would not have changed anything for Russia, on the contrary, it would have put it in a completely disadvantageous position, which can be interpreted as if Tokyo’s claims to the islands have some “grounds”, and the annexation of Crimea to Russia supposedly  wrongfully.

The image of “Putin-2” also played a significant positive role (the Japanese say so, bearing in mind the second presidential term of V. Putin).  It is important that the statements on this score by Japanese intellectuals are characteristic.  For example, experienced Russian experts Kazuhiko Togo and Kensaku Kumabe write: “At the heart of Putin’s rule was something that was difficult to explain with generally accepted principles of Western European democracy.  It seems to us that this was manifested in his intention through political institutions of a vertical model of government to concentrate all power in himself and, being the representative of Russia, acting as a leader by the name of Putin, using the attractiveness of ideals that attract the people to his side, to put everything together  and pull along. ”

In such statements one can see perplexity and poorly concealed admiration for V. Putin’s ability to cope with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  University professor Hosei Nobuo Shimotomai argues with a non-standard and strong metaphor: V. Putin, in his opinion, is driven by the desire to turn Moscow into the geopolitical “Third Rome”.

The Japanese president is also impressed by the understanding of some features of Japanese culture by the president of Russia.  Before taking office, in an interview with the editor-in-chief of the Asahi newspaper, V. Putin used the sports term “hajime” (はじめ “Let’s Start!”), Which opens any fight in Japanese martial arts.  In the political context, this appeal has moved from the category of hints to the category of promises to seek compromises to improve the current relations between Russia and Japan.

The meeting between V. Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Sochi Olympic Games in 2015 showed that personal relations between the leaders of Russia and Japan allow us to build an additional “framework” of interstate ties.  As the researchers of both countries emphasize, personal diplomacy corresponds to the mentality of both Russians and Japanese, and meetings of leaders help to improve the image of the partner country in public opinion.

In September 2019, at the Fifth Eastern Economic Forum, a meeting between V. Putin and S. Abe, at which the representative of the Japanese side stated the need to discuss and resolve issues regarding bilateral relations, including the problem of the peace treaty.  Unfortunately, at a meeting in December 2019, at which the results of political activity between the states were summed up, no decision was made regarding the southern part of the Kuril Islands and the question remained open and moved on to 2020.

The Japanese side is also extremely worried that the resolution of the territorial dispute is being postponed, but the media often come across statements that neither Russia nor Japan will have enough political will to resolve this dispute.  “The political will of both countries is not enough to solve such a difficult problem.  This is not possible if the decision is not made by civil societies of Russia and Japan.  There are fundamental differences in the approaches of Russians and Japanese.  At the moment, there are no real prerequisites in order to move the territorial problem off the ground. ”

At the same time, the correspondent of the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri, Utah Inoue, expressed her opinion on the Kuril issue.  She believes that Russia does not plan to transfer the Kuril Islands to Japan, and for these reasons.  If Moscow wanted to return the disputed territories, it would have carried out the procedure of returning the islands in secret from the public, exactly as it was done in the deal with China, Kimura is sure.  In 2005, President Putin transferred more than half of the territories of the three islands: Bolshoi, Tarabarov, and Bolshoi Ussuriysky to China, at the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur rivers.

The negative mood of the Japanese media was seen in connection with the detention of 5 Japanese fishing vessels fishing in the marine area of the group of Habomai islands.  Korean respondents of many publications spoke out on this score, for example, the Sankei Shimbun publication said: “Apparently, these provocative actions by the Russian side are timed to coincide with the first visit of the new Foreign Minister Motegi to Moscow.  He should first of all raise this issue in the negotiations and urgently demand the release of sailors in order to bring 24 team members to their homeland in Japan.  The islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai are the sovereign territory of Japan and were illegally occupied by the Soviet Union-Russia after the Second World War.  The detained vessels conducted safe and permitted fishing for octopus in the framework of the Russian-Japanese agreement of 1998. ”

Publications and references to Russian foreign policy in a positive way are rare enough, and mainly contain a description of a visit to the Kuril Islands or Sakhalin Island. Summing up all of the above, we can conclude that mainly the foreign policy of Russia is perceived by the Japanese media negatively, and at some points, sharply.  Undoubtedly, Russia and Japan at the moment are just beginning to develop bilateral relations and so far the mood of the media on both sides is more negative.  It is important to emphasize that the vast majority of publications in the Japanese media about Russia’s foreign policy are discussions on the process of resolving the issue of the Kuril Islands.  This territorial dispute remains quite complicated for both parties to this day, but Japan takes it more painfully.

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Translation of the article by the Japanese edition of Sankei Shimbun [Electronic resource] // Website “INOSMI.RU” – https://inosmi.ru/politic/20191219/246473109.html (accessed date 19.19.19)

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