Friday, February 11, 2011

Japan demands Russia returns Kuril Islands

BLACK minivans loaded with stereo speakers cruised the streets of Tokyo today, blaring nationalistic slogans and 1930s military-parade music: how the far rightists celebrate "Northern Territories Day". To mark the occasion, an official holiday since 1981, the government spent ¥200m to take out about 75 full-page newspaper advertisements today to remind the public about the chain of islands it describes as "occupied" by Russia. The Soviet Union claimed the islands in the slipstream of the second world war (and calls them the Kurils).

The newspaper adverts (for example, this one) depict a cute Japanese girl with a flag of Japan painted on one side of her face and a map of the islands on her other cheek. "I can help with the return of the Northern Territories" reads the headline. In August 1945 some 17,300 Japanese lived there; today 16,300 Russians do, according to the ad. Japanese need visas to visit, it explains.

February 7th makes for an ironic date. It was chosen because on it was on this day in 1855 that Japan and Russia began friendly diplomatic relations, signing a treaty on commerce and navigation. Today’s newspaper ads point readers to an official website filled with photos of government officials and ordinary (or in some cases goofy-looking) citizens present placards that insist on the importance of “the northern territories” being returned to Japan. "We have to raise our voices and show our strong will to demand the return of the territories," a sign implores. Thus the government signals its assent to those jingoistic sound trucks.

The matter has come to seem especially urgent of late. On November 1st President Dmitri Medvedev became the first Russian leader to visit the islands. High-ranking colleagues, including Russia’s defence minister, followed soon after.

Japanese leaders are of two minds or more when it comes to the question of how to proceed, which may help explain their exuberantly toothless newspaper campaign. Yukio Hatoyama, the most recently toppled of Japan’s many former prime ministers and a native of nearby Hokkaido, urges an incremental approach, aimed at the initial retrieval of only two of the four disputed islands. Seiji Maehara, the foreign minister, scoffs at this. He is determined to continue pressing for the return of all four islands—and he will have the opportunity to do so when he makes his first official trip to Russia, on February 10th. by T.Y. and K.N.C. | TOKYO for The Economist

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