Country Report: Japan (February 2022)


Two themes have garnered the bulk of attention in Japan’s foreign relations at the beginning of 2022: (1) Japan-Russia relations in the context of the looming war over Ukraine and collapsing Russo-US relations; and (2) Sino-Japanese relations in this 50th year anniversary of normalization and in the context of Sino-US and Sino-Russian relations. Overshadowing these discussions was deep awareness of two strategic triangles: the Japan-Russia-US triangle, and the Japan-China-US triangle.

Recent books published in Japan shed light on both bilateral relationships and recent articles put them more clearly in triangular context. In the Japanese edition of Huffpost, Ambassador Rahm Emmanuel was quoted on February 7, Northern Territories Day, of supporting Japan’s claims to the islands and linking Russian aggression there to its behavior in Ukraine. Russia was the aggressor toward both Japan in September 1945 and Ukraine in 2014; and now is a repeat. The question of how Prime Minister Kishida will respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine is on the minds of many, especially given the images of Abe’s 7-year legacy of diplomacy with Putin.

Two books in Japanese set the tone for the new reflections on ties to Russia. In September Chikuma Shincho published Suzuki Yoshikatsu, Hopporyodo koshoshi, a history of negotiations over the Northern Territories.  A month later the Hokkaido Shimbun editorial board published Kieta yonto henkan on the 2800 days of the Abe administration’s negotiations with Russia. In advance of examining these books, we cover an article in that paper at the end of December.

In November 2021 Onodera Shiro published a book on postwar Japan’s thinking about China (Chugokukan), which was followed by the January 2022 issue of Toa devoted to a retrospective and outlook on fifty years of normalization. Together they point to how Japanese are evaluating the way their country has managed this critical bilateral relationship. In the background is both the threat of Chinese aggression against Taiwan and rising US defense of that island. Here too, Japan has voiced support for the US, but a possibility of disagreement is on the minds of many.

Given the intensity of the discussion over how Japan should respond to the looming conflict in Ukraine, a section on that theme has bee added. A separate Country Report: Japan will take up the theme of Japan-China relations, which has been put on the backburner, given the urgency of debates over Japan-Russia relations.

Japan-Russia Relations

Hokkaido Shimbun on December 26 reassessed Abe’s 7-8 years of diplomacy with Putin, finding a legacy of failure. In an exclusive interview with Abe, it cited him saying, in November 2018 in Singapore, that it is meaningless to aim for 100 percent and come up with nothing, as he called for a deal for only two islands, and later warning Kishida that changing course now would lead to 100 percent retreat. Abe viewed accelerated talks on the basis of the 1956 joint declaration as a “big chance” in part because Trump showed understanding for progress on negotiations for a peace treaty. There were hints that some agreement had been reached with Putin, although its contents were not revealed. The reason talks stalled afterwards was due to a backlash inside Russia. By the time Abe and Putin spoke in January 2019, a setback was noticeable. Yet Abe was appealing to Kishida to stick with the Singapore (and November 2018 Buenos Aires) process. In response to the interview, the newspaper carried commentaries. Hakamada Shigeki found Abe indulgent and lacking reflection. Dmitry Strel’tsov concluded that the logic in the two countries was a mismatch. And Togo Kazuhiko argued that Abe’s judgment was extremely realistic. The paper added that Putin has toughened his posture of setting aside the territorial question, putting pressure on Abe’s strategy of compromise.

On December 28 Hokkaido Shimbun added that Kishida has kept his intentions unclear, not mentioning the 1956 joint declaration. Along with Abe, Suzuki Muneo called for continuity in the talks with Russia in a meeting with Kishida. On the one hand, Kishida claimed that he has not changed Abe’s direction with Russia. On the other, he used different language from Abe’s, concealing his intentions and making this a low priority compared to relations with the US. On December 29 the same paper asked how Kishida would deal with stagnation on economic cooperation and exchanges, citing Abe’s “negative legacy.” Suga did not attend Putin’s September Eastern Economic Forum after Abe had attended four years in a row. Some Japanese called on him to attend and to keep in touch with Putin, but Suga had little interest in diplomacy with Russia and used the pandemic as an excuse. By video, the leaders of India, China, and Mongolia joined. Actually, under Abe trade had declined from $33 billion in 2013, falling in 2020 with the pandemic to $16 billion, affected also by the G7 sanctions and sharply contrasting with the rise in Sino-Russian trade. These articles reinforce the negative assessments of Abe’s diplomacy in the two recent books.

The lead in Suzuki’s book is the “great miscalculation of Abe’s diplomacy, territory was not returned.” He proceeds to trace how Abe made one-sided concessions, raised Japanese hopes inordinately on a rollercoaster of highs sand lows, and finally left office with a mess that his successors have struggled to try to fix. Conducting irregular diplomacy bypassing experts in the foreign ministry and striving for a “legacy” achievement, Abe dug an ever-deeper hole. There was a remarkable lack of reciprocity in the agreed steps and a lack of professionalism, e.g., in putting in writing the Singapore agreement of 2018—parallel to the errors in Trump’s Singapore agreement with Kim Jong-un earlier that year. Suzuki concludes that Japan lost ground on all fronts: legal, history, geopolitical, and economic. It kept backtracking on its position without the feedback essential from the Russian side that these compromises would be productive. Unlike the hardliners in Japan who are adamantly against pulling back from insistence on the return of all four disputed islands, Suzuki does not appear to resist meeting Russia part way for a deal; his analysis concentrates on not actually making tangible progress in pursuing such a breakthrough.

The essence of an agreement between Tokyo and Moscow did not change over the 35 years between Nakasone’s exploration of a deal and Abe’s retirement. Tokyo dangled economic carrots in front of Moscow in return for the recovery of islands seized after it had announced its surrender. Its opportunity peaked in 1992, when Russia was at its nadir and desperate for a strong economic infusion. Also, at that time, Moscow’s views of history and geopolitics were at their wobbliest. More barriers would have to be surmounted as Russia grew more confident and more obsessed with a nationalist view of history and an expansionist geopolitical outlook. Facing Putin in 2001-02, when the Irkutsk agreement was reached, in 2012-13, when Abe set his sights on a breakthrough, and in 2022, under Kishida as war in Ukraine fully revived the Cold War, Japan has had to assess how its chances for a deal have shrunk, but that has been missing.

Three groups have drawn attention for striving to shape Japan’s approach to Moscow under these changing circumstances. In one corner, as Suzuki notes, was the “Russia school” in the Foreign Ministry backed by right-wing forces, which had rallied around “Northern Territories Day” since the early 1980s. They were seen as unyielding advocates of “four islands in a batch.” Bypassing the Foreign Ministry was a work-around to explore some kind of deal.  In the opposite corner were those who developed channels with Russians that might yield results, who initially proclaimed modest objectives for “two plus alpha” as a realistic compromise to recover two islands and keep alive hopes for the other two, but eventually revealed grander ambitions for a geopolitical or civilizational realignment, as if Japan carried enough weight to buck the tide of Russo-US estrangement and Sino-Russian alliance-like endearment. When the economic case to Moscow was fading, they broached a more far-reaching rapprochement. In a third corner were the “realists” in the Foreign Ministry and the foreign policy establishment, who prioritized closeness to the United States on Russia policy and recognized Sino-Russian ties for what they were. Abe broke with the first group, despite his right-wing orientation, utilized the second group for public relations to justify his diplomacy, and bypassed the third group, although on most issues he was a strong advocate of a closer alliance with the United States.

 Abe’s pursuit of Putin had certain red lines he would not cross along with accommodations he chose to make. The two biggest red lines were not to damage the Japan-US relationship even if tensions might arise and not to offer substantial economic support to Russia, at least until a deal was finalized. Without Abe acknowledging it, these red lines were impassable barriers for the Russians, as one official referred to Abe’s economic proposals as “chickenfeed” and many blamed the Japan-US alliance for the impossibility of reaching agreement. As for lures, Abe put at the top of the list establishing chemistry with Putin, catering to him repeatedly to maximize goodwill, in line with prior Japanese personalized approaches to Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Also in line with earlier approaches was repeated hype about the diplomacy under way with attempts to bury signs of trouble. Willful ignorance was displayed toward how the Russian media and the public were responding. Another aspect of the approach was flexibility in Japan’s position, as if the bottom line was not fixed. Finally, much was made of the potential similarity in Japan and Russia’s positions, seeking more autonomy and a regional balance of power, feigning that North Korea was seen similarly and that they could find common ground in reacting to China’s rise.   

Little recognition was given in the Abe administration to how Putin was moving ever further away from a framework that could have led to a breakthrough. Japanese sought to highlight shared aspects of worldview and not to pressure Russia to accept Japan’s thinking, but Putin insisted that Japan had to ratify the hardening Russian position on history, i.e., that victory in WWII meant that Moscow had rightful ownership of the disputed islands. Moscow was not content with two differing interpretations of the events of 1945; it demanded that its view be endorsed by Abe as a condition for an agreement, and Abe did not treat this as a dealbreaker.  

Abe’s desperation for a legacy achievement was conspicuous. He wanted a deal much more than Putin did, and he kept ceding ground with nothing tangible in return.  If the starting point in 1956 and again in Japanese thinking during the 1990s to 2010s was that Japan insists on four islands and Russia is willing to make a deal with two islands, the terms of debate had changed by the end of Abe’s tenure: Japan will settle for two islands and Russia insists on no island transfers—just a peace treaty. Abe’s successors Suga and Kishida were stuck with walking back what Abe had done. An oral agreement in November 2018 in Singapore led Russia to insist that all previous agreements had been voided and it had the right interpretation of what had been decided, but Japan’s new leaders responded that it was not in writing, was an exchange rather than some kind of agreement, and, if anything, stands along with still salient prior joint understandings.

Japanese paid little attention to what Russian publications had been saying about the talks or even what Foreign Minister Lavrov, who was assigned to manage working level exchanges, was saying—as if he was the “bad cop” serving a domestic purpose alongside the “good cop” Putin. The real import of Russian rethinking about victory in WWII for national identity and about the need for a new cold war against the United States and its allies was minimized as if Russia in Asia is different from Russia in Europe. The notion that Putin was intent on driving a wedge between Japan and the United States, prioritized China, and was daring Abe with repeated military provocations scarcely registered in the Kantei. By responding weakly to Putin’s moves, Abe was not only revealing that he had a poor grasp of Russia’s thinking, but that he could be further outmaneuvered in bilateral exchanges. When Russia feigned that its concern was that Japan would permit US bases on islands it returned, Japan was slow to grasp that this was but a pretext to deny a deal when the real concern was the Japan-US alliance itself, as it had been in 1960s when Moscow renounced the 1956 agreement with Japan offering a two-island transfer.

In the 1990s Japan envisioned a new order in Asia and thought it had cards to pressure Moscow to join. In the 2010s Russia is in pursuit of a new order in Asia and is aligning with China to oust the US with the intention to pressure Japan. Each was bolstered by a worldview steeped in both history and geopolitical calculations. Japan failed to grasp Russian thinking, wrongly assuming that it had incentives to shape Russian behavior in the 2010s that had faded from the 1990s.

Tokyo and Moscow framed their talks on a territorial deal and peace treaty differently, leading to repeated miscalculations in Japan and finally the mess after the Singapore talks. As Kishida struggled to keep alive some semblance of Abe’s diplomacy with Putin, the Russian leadership both turned aggressive toward Ukraine and threatened Japan with dire consequences if it did not stay on the sidelines, as if any support for the US and G7 contradicted the prior diplomacy. At least three assumptions appeared in Russian statements: (1) Japan had separated itself from the G7 and assured Russia that it would maintain an upbeat attitude toward talks without new barriers; (2) the Singapore agreement was the culmination of the talks, which replaced all other agreements and statements and would lead toward a peace treaty without preconditions; and (3) if Japan broke from the “peace process,” Russia would be free to take strong, hostile moves. Moscow’s demands had hardened for Japan to recognize its right to the islands, to break with the US alliance and shift to neutrality, and to remain silent about Russian behavior anywhere. None of this was due to backtracking by Suga or Kishida, but was the legacy Abe had left.

Abe had relied on Imai, whose background was economics, and on monthly meetings with Diet member Suzuki Muneo, who had led in the Irkutsk agreement of 2001 and remained a strong booster of overtures to Russia with longstanding contacts with Russians. Suzuki strove to put a positive spin on every setback in bilateral diplomacy, while Imai struggled to add an energy component to grease the wheels of diplomacy, whether in 2016 when momentum seemed to be building or in 2019 when a rough patch had to be overcome. The struggle between Imai and Yachi, the national security advisor more prone to consider foreign relations broadly, was well known even before Yachi in 2020, after his retirement, had the audacity to say the emperor has no clothes, i.e., that diplomacy had reached a stalemate, sharply at odds with the official line.

While relations were affected by a lack of economic complementarity—in sharp contrast to what had been assumed earlier—and spillover from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, what really stood in the way was Putin’s hardening thinking about geopolitics and history. Japan became the poster-boy for offenses against the growing Russian obsession with the fruits of victory in WWII as the foundation of the world order and national identity and with the Unites States’ alliances as the obstacle to reestablishing the spheres of influence vital to Russian security. 

In the Hokkaido Shimbun book, the Singapore decision is attributed to a one-hour exchange between Abe and Putin with 40 minutes on the peace treaty issue, given translation time 20 minutes for a fundamental decision by Abe to shift Japan’s negotiating position and claim a sure path to a final agreement at the Osaka G20 seven months away. Yet, Abe, as usual, did not explain himself at a press conference despite the gravity of the decision nor did the clashing views of the two sides in subsequent commentaries support Japan’s hype that there had been a full meeting of the minds. The acrimony over the following months was but the latest debacle in Abe’s pursuit of an historic agreement with Putin, marked by Japanese hype, Russian failure to stick to what was seemingly agreed, and growing skepticism that any deal could be reached.

Prior to the Singapore summit, Japan was in a hurry to secure visible results. Excluding Yachi and foreign ministry officials from a secret meeting, Abe met with just a few advisors, including Imai Takaya and Kitamura Shigeru, at a time of widespread criticism in the media and among officials of Putin’s Vladivostok gambit. Refusing to take “no” for an answer, they decided that Putin’s call for a conclusion by year’s end was not an ultimatum with no wiggle-room but an opportunity. In accord with Suzuki Muneo’s advice, they decided that Putin would not agree to more than the two small islands, and Japan had a weak case in international law for the other two. It could reach a deal allowing joint economic activity on the big islands and free movement satisfying to the former residents. Kitamura took the proposal to Russia, meeting with Sergey Naryshkin. Fearing that Singapore would mark the end of the line for Abe’s legacy endeavor, this desperate initiative was launched in awareness that Russia might put conditions on a deal unacceptable to Japan, such as insisting that Abe recognize the right of the victor to all of the islands or that Japan drop the sanctions it had imposed with the G7 in 2014. Even if a deal was approved, Russia’s transfer of the islands could be made conditional on unknown factors.

After the Singapore head-to-head, statements negated the heady mood Abe sought to create: the contents of the agreement were not explained, and it was easy to misread them; the Japanese side wavered between saying its position had not changed and it had changed because a big deal was reached; not only was the expected resistance heard in the Diet and beyond to the abandonment of a long-held staple of national identity, but the lack of explanation for how this would benefit Japan or impact Japan-Russia relations fueled further criticism; and Putin’s talk in September of a peace treaty by year’s end with no preconditions was contradicted by Russian preconditions added after the Singapore summit. Asserted before Xi Jinping and other leaders without forewarning to Abe, this had forced Abe’s hand, and he responded with a compromise offer that Putin appeared to accept in Singapore. One more time, Russia had moved the goal posts, and faced with failure of his signature initiative, Abe had chosen to interpret Putin’s challenge as an opportunity, as if it were only an appeal for an accelerated agreement, which Putin greatly desired. If Putin had good intentions, he could have raised his appeal directly with Abe a little earlier when the two had met and not couched it as a peace treaty with no island agreement instead of suggesting some common ground for compromise. The aftermath was left to the foreign ministers and working-level officials, who previously had blocked progress.

Missing in Japanese calculations was an assessment of the conditions inside Russia for such an agreement to take effect. All attention centered on the will of Putin, as if that were known, and the secret one-on-one conversations of Abe and Putin, whose details were left unspecified. No preparation for agreeing to transfer two islands to Japan had taken place. Instead, the public had been aroused to regard such a move as a betrayal of national identity and national interest. It would have been totally inconsistent with the direction of Russian foreign policy to accept such an agreement. Indeed, Japan, as in 1992, had become a foil for condemnation for its audacity to question the verdicts of WWII and its alliance with the US threatening Russia. No groundswell could be detected, as in the 1980s, for Japan’s advanced technology or even its investments, as if Russia’s economy with China’s cooperation was doing well without Japan.

Despite negative signals from Russia, Abe’s confidence was unshaken. If Putin agreed, there was still the problem of working-level talks, which had stalemated repeatedly. Bypassing the Russian foreign ministry meant bypassing Japan’s foreign ministry, too, but such efforts failed when it came to implementation of summit understandings. Kono Taro desired a role given his grandfather’s importance in the talks that resulted in the 1956 agreement, the basis of the new talks. The Russian foreign ministry fought hard not to be sidelined. Abe’s circle did not find a way around this feared roadblock. In any case, hardline statements issued by Lavrov spoiled the atmosphere, and Kono was left in the awkward position of having to remain silent when asked about them. Meanwhile, provocative Russian behavior drawing condemnation in the West was met with silence in Japan in order not to spoil the environment for an agreement. Curiously, it was only the Japanese side that worried about the atmosphere, as Russia felt free to speak ever more provocatively while Japan did not dare react. Building trust was just a one-way street. The audacity and timing of Russian moves shocked Japanese officials, but they were silenced by Abe’s insistence that a positive message be delivered. Amid negotiations in 2019 on the basis of the Singapore agreement, Russia announced the construction of Russia’s biggest fish processing factory on Shikotan, which Japan had assumed would be transferred to it, and Putin celebrated the occasion with a video appearance, but Japan held its tongue once more.

When in early 2020 Abe was contemplating joining Putin at the planned 75th anniversary May 9 victory day celebration, the foreign ministry objected, arguing that this would confirm Russia’s historical claim that the islands were won as an integral part of its victory in the war, while stirring an uproar in Japan in the public and among conservatives. Yet, the pandemic interfered.

Suga faced a dilemma, affirming Abe’s diplomacy with Russia in principle but backtracking away from a failed policy. He resorted to vague language to distance himself from the Singapore “exchange,” reviving references to prior Japan-Russia agreements as still applicable. With the 2020 constitutional amendment excluding the possibility of a territorial transfer and the call in Russia for third countries to invest on favorable terms in the islands, new talks were hopeless.

Sankei on February 7, Northern Territories Day, linked Russia’s preparations to invade Ukraine to the islands and asked Kishida to speak forcefully of his determination to recover the four islands. Needed is not begging the Putin administration but joining international criticism of Russia and keeping pace with sanctions, while also reminding the world of the Northern Territories. Recently, Ambassador Galuzin, said that he had been negotiating a peace treaty with Japan, not the Northern Territories. The article ends by saying there will always be an opportunity to return the islands, but a foundation must be created for that possibility.

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