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Opinion: Relations with Russia

2005 offers ideal chance to resolve outstanding issues.

`If we compare our ages, you are as advanced as my father and I am simply of the age of your son. I take your hand in order to serve my father and not to lose my way for performing my filial duty.''

So said Evfimii Vasilievich Putyatin, a Russian admiral who visited Nagasaki at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867) to establish diplomatic relations with Japan. Putyatin made the comment during a meeting with Masanori Tsutsui, his Japanese counterpart, who visited a Russian warship for the negotiations.

At the time, Tsutsui was in his mid-70s and Putyatin was approaching 50. Tsutsui later wrote he was so moved by Putyatin's courteous manners that he had difficulty fighting back tears.

That meeting led to a treaty of commerce, navigation and delimitation that was signed between Japan and Russia on Feb. 7, 1855, at Shimoda. The treaty clearly stated that Japan's national border extended to the area between Etorofu and Uruppu in the Kurile Islands.

So, what happened to relations between the two countries that started out in a spirit of mutual goodwill and cooperation 150 years ago? The Japanese government now commem orates Feb. 7_the day when the first treaty was signed between Japan and Russia_as ``Northern Territories Day'' in its continuing drive for the return of the four islands, which Tokyo claims are unlawfully occupied by Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, shows no sign of agreeing to return all the four islands, even though it repeatedly has expressed its intention to settle the territorial issue by handing over jurisdiction of Habomai and Shikotan on the basis of the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration.

Even when bilateral relations show signs of improving, they invariably unravel on account of the territorial dispute. Ties between Japan and Russia have remained caught in this vicious cycle for the past 60 years since the end of World War II. Bilateral relations were also bedeviled by other unfortunate events: the Russo-Japan War (1904-1905), Japan's dispatch of troops to Siberia (1918) and the military clash at Nomonhan in northeastern China (1939).

Also, the Soviet Union declared war against Japan in the closing days of World War II by abrogating the 1941 Japan-Soviet neutrality pact. Moscow's seizure of the four islands and incarceration of a large number of Japanese prisoners quite naturally stirred up strong anti-Soviet sentiment.

Japan and the Soviet Union were also in opposing camps during the Cold War, each regarding the other as a threat.

Still, the Cold War ended 15 years ago when Russia embraced democracy and a market economy. Befitting the new age in which we live, moves are afoot to create a new regional grouping in East Asia. Yet, the Northern Territories dispute shows no sign of being resolved, nor have any measures been mooted to put Japan-Russia relations on a better footing. The blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the leaders of both countries.

In contrast to the stalemated political relations, trade between Japan and Russia has increased dramatically in recent years as Japanese firms capitalized on the business opportunities created by the vibrant Russian economy, fueled mainly by high oil prices.

Furthermore, private groups and research institutes in Japan and Russia have made valiant efforts to reconsider history between the two countries and hold events to com memorate the 150th anniversary of the estab lishment of diplomatic relations, the centen nial of the Russo-Japan War and the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. These events represent a good opportunity to dispel mutual feelings of distrust between the two countries.

Both countries' populations have the power to push their governments the same way as they did 150 years ago. Prospects for resolving the Northern Territories dispute will naturally arise if the foundation is laid for deepening relations between the two countries by increased exchanges in business and civic activities in this commemorative year. --The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 7(IHT/Asahi: February 8,2005)


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