Valery Kistanov: “Unlike us, Japanese have always had one position”

The scientist, specialist on Japan about the resignation of Prime Minister Abe and the prospects of concluding the peace treaty between Russia and Japan

Valery Kistanov: “Unlike us, Japanese have always had one position”

Last week, it was announced that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was resigning for health reasons. When he was prime minister (and he occupied this post for record eight years for Japanese top government officials), the news often mentioned Abe's great desire to sign a peace treaty with Russian President Putin and solve the problem of the Kuril Islands. Despite the efforts of the Japanese side, the agreement was never signed. About what prevented it and why the theme of the Kuril Islands will not go away with the resignation of the Japanese prime minister — read in the interview of Realnoe Vremya with the head of the Centre for Japanese studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Valery Kistanov.

“There was no remorse, especially the urge to find the perpetrators of the war”

Mr Kistanov, let me start with history. This week, the world celebrates the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, which ended on September 2, 1945 with the signing of the Japanese Japanese Instrument of Surrender. What is the current attitude towards this date in Japan?

Sadly, because Japan lost in this war, and it lost by signing an unconditional Instrument of Surrender of its armed forces.

As I understand it, Japanese society has never changed its attitude to the events of World War II after 1945?

It has not — there was no remorse in society, and even more so there was no urge to find the culprits of this war, although Japan itself is to blame that it lost.

Remember that it was Japan that started the war with China and it started it long before the official start date of WWII, in the 1930, but that in Japan they do not like to remember, only occasionally remember, incidentally, they publish the memoirs of the kamikaze of those years, the materials that the USSR was aggressive, hitting in the back of Japan at the end of the war when it was bleeding to death.

Recently, a newspaper of the island of Hokkaido published a material based on declassified archives of the Russian defence ministry about the Kuril Islands Landing Operation, and this material presents the operation as an aggression of the Soviet Union and, in addition, praises the exploits of Japanese soldiers on the island of Shumshu, who fought with the Soviet “aggressors”. Although, surprisingly, Japan has recently remembered the victims of the American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but no one criticized America.

Why did the Japanese society and state have no remorse for the bloody war, unlike the Germans? Is it the Japanese mentality?

I'm not an expert in mentality — just stating a fact: Japan did not express remorse. Certainly, at one time, German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt during a visit to Poland and asked for forgiveness, and in 2016, Barack Obama was the first current US president to visit Hiroshima and then went with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Pearl Harbor, and they talked a lot about the fact that the countries should make peace, but neither Obama apologised for the atomic bombing of Japanese cities nor Abe for Pearl Harbor.

Do you have a theory on why there wasn't even a mutual apology?

There are no versions, but Americans never apologise for their actions — they believe that they are always right. As for Japanese… For example, Abe is considered a right-wing figure, nationalist, and it should be said that almost immediately after his second coming to power in 2013, he visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where, along with two million Japanese who died on the fronts of World War II, 24 Japanese military leaders who were executed by tribunal sentences for war crimes are revered, which caused a storm of protests in China and South Korea. Of course, later, not to anger the Chinese and Koreans, Abe did not go there again but regularly sent offerings to the temple.

Japan's signing of the surrender on board the American battleship Missouri. Photo:

“In Japan, no one will forget about the treaty”

Let's talk about Shinzo Abe. Last week, it was announced that he had decided to resign as the head of the government. Knowing that all eight years he has been an ardent supporter of the conclusion of a peace treaty with Russia (which was not signed, it is believed, because of the unresolved issue of the Kuril Islands), can we assume that such treaty can be forgotten by both Russia and Japan?

In Japan, no one will forget about the treaty — the Japanese will not forget about it themselves, and Russia will not be allowed to forget about it, and it does not matter who will be in the prime minister's chair — Abe or his followers. In Japan, since the 1950s, when the intention to sign the peace treaty between the countries was announced, a lot of premiers have been replaced, but no one has forgotten about it, although in fact, for Japan, the peace treaty is a pretext for peacefully obtaining the Northern territories, that is, a number of the Kuril Islands that passed to our country after the Second World War.

Didn't you think that Abe, and not his predecessors — Koizumi, for example, or Hashimoto, who often had contact with Yeltsin — was particularly active in the issue of concluding the treaty and wanting to get the Islands (if we can say so)?

We must understand that it's all about the entourage and the methods of solving the issue. For example, Junichiro Koizumi (Prime Minister of Japan in 2001-2006) took a firm position — to get all four islands of the Kuril Islands, and Abe, as it is believed, took a soft position — to get two islands. And in 2018, Abe and Putin agreed to base further negotiations on the 1956 Declaration on ending the war between the USSR and Japan, which states that our country must give two islands to Japan as a gesture of goodwill, but only after signing the peace treaty.

But the principled position of Japan has not changed — Abe expected to get two islands at the “first stage”, and then continue to negotiate and get the other two islands in the future.

Both Abe, and Koizumi, and many other prime ministers are really no different from each other — there is a difference only in rhetoric, and then you can remember that the first two terms Putin had not yet decided on the issue of the Kuril Islands, but in 2012, once again came to the presidency, he stated that Japan should seek a compromise, to avoid misunderstandings, and Abe seized on these words of the Russian president, strongly relying on Putin. It should be said that Abe and Putin have met 27 times since 2013 because Abe understood that only Putin can solve territorial issues in Russia — this was the fundamental difference between Abe and the other Japanese prime ministers.

Junichiro Koizumi took a firm line — get all four islands of the Kuril Islands, and Abe (pictured) is believed to have taken a soft line — to get two islands

“The Japanese thought to help Russia with projects and investments and thought that Putin would appreciate them”

What strata in Japan are particularly in favour of the return of the islands? Nationalists? The intelligentsia?

I will proceed from the opposite — is there anyone in Japan who is in favour of giving up the islands and signing the peace treaty with Russia? There are no such layers in Japan.

Well, Abe said that the problem needs to be solved. Did he offer something qualitatively new in the approaches for this purpose?

I don't know how qualitative it was, but in 2016 Abe visited Putin in Sochi and offered the Russian president an eight-point plan for economic cooperation between the two countries in the Far East, and it was announced in the media that Abe offered Putin a new approach to solving the territorial problem and signing the peace treaty. At the initial stage, many people were puzzling over what this approach was, and then they realised — the approach was that the Japanese said — let's start working together economically, cooperation will create a favourable environment for resolving the territorial issue, but to call a spade a spade, the Japanese thought to help Russia with projects and investments and believed that Putin would evaluate them and make territorial concessions, but as you can see, this plan never worked out.

Moreover, no breakthrough in economic relations with Japan has been achieved over the past four years, even on the basis of this plan — no serious projects have been launched, the volume of trade with Japan has fallen by a third, Japanese investment in the Russian economy is meager, and Russian investment go not to the Japanese Islands but to offshore islands.

Do the parties lose a lot from the fact that the opportunities for cooperation in the economy are missed?

Of course, they are losing a lot — Russia would very much like to see the volume of Japanese investment in the country — in the much-needed energy sector, in the manufacturing industry, our country needs Japanese investment in urban infrastructure, in medicine. For example, we were told that on one of the streets of Voronezh, Japan wanted to put traffic lights that would avoid traffic jams, and in Khabarovsk, Japan was going to build a clinic with much-needed modern equipment, but in the end all this turned out to be just propaganda.

The Japanese thought to help Russia with projects and investments and thought that Putin would appreciate them and make territorial concessions, but as you can see, this plan never worked out

“Large businesses in Japan are not interested in the territorial problem”

Maybe the Kremlin underestimates the benefits of cooperation?

The Kremlin knows that Japan is the third economic power, that it is our neighbour, but no one can or wants to do anything for relations there.

You know yourself that the investment climate in Russia is terrible, and big Japanese businesses are not interested in Russia — although Abe urged Japanese businesses to invest in Russia to solve the territorial issue, but big Japanese businesses are not interested in the territorial problem — they primarily have their own interests.

Besides, Japan, especially after 2014, is under pressure from the Americans — the Japanese responded to Obama's call and joined the ranks of those countries that imposed sanctions on Russia. Trade with Japan was scanty, and continues to remain so.

I often hear that the problem of the islands, if it is solved, will be solved at least in 100 years, when other generations will come who will look at the world differently — without dwelling on any political and national interests. But at the same time, I think that the Japanese will live in hope every year because no one knows what the political situation in Russia will be like in five or ten years, which means that everything is possible. Do you agree?

That's right! You see, the Japanese are consistent in their policies, unlike us, and will always keep in mind the Declaration of 1956. Khrushchev was a naive man, believing that the Declaration would pull Japan away from America, from 1960, Soviet leaders were saying that there was no problem with the Islands, but in 1985 Gorbachev came and said that there was a problem and it needed to be discussed. And in 1991, the Japanese hoped that Gorbachev would bring them the Islands with his visit, but it did not work out. Then, as I said, Yeltsin almost gave up the Islands, and Putin, who replaced him, also recognised the Declaration of 1956, although he noted that the declaration does not say to whom and under what sovereignty the two islands will be transferred.

Our positions always change, and the Japanese have always had one position.

Signing of the Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956 that restored diplomatic relations between the USSR and Japan. Photos:

“Abe has stabilised the political situation in Japan”

Abe served as prime minister of Japan for almost eight years during his second term — it is a record for the country's leaders of the government. How did he do it and how visible are Abe's successes?

Abe has stabilised the political situation in Japan — after the first coming of Abe (2001-2007) in Japan there were either six or seven prime ministers from both parties — both Liberal-Democratic and Democratic, and at the end of 2012, Abe became prime minister again. Abe took advantage of that the Japanese opposition was in a state of disarray and wobbles, which means that it did not pose any threat to the ruling coalition led by the LDP.

Abe also did something for the economy — “abenomics”, which consisted of pumping up the economy with state funds, implementing a soft monetary policy, and implementing reforms to support private businesses, produced good results — the country's economy grew, although slowly (GDP did not exceed 1,5 per cent), but at a stable pace, and this was a good indicator.

Besides, large corporate profits rose in Japan, the yen fell, which was important for Japanese exports, and exports are the main driver of the Japanese economy, and the NIKKEI economic activity index soared in the country. But ordinary Japanese did not feel these improvements in the economy, besides Abe introduced a consumer tax in 2014, which hit the economy that year, and with the advent of the pandemic, much of the Japanese economy went down. In the foreign arena, Abe was doing his best to strengthen the military-political alliance with the United States, and perhaps this strengthening is an achievement, but at the same time, Abe has not achieved success in relations with China, has not solved the problem of the Northern territories and has not solved the issue of Japanese soldiers kidnapped by North Korea. And of course, Abe failed to hold the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 and has not solved the problem of victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster — a lot of people are still living there in temporary housing. As you can see, there are pros and there are cons.

By Sergey Kochnev