WASHINGTON — Back in the days of the cold war, I visited a Russian-language school in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. There, among college students and housewives interested in Russian literature or in tourist trips to the land of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, I came across a businessman in his 60s who told me he was studying Russian to open up what was then the Soviet Far East to Japanese investors.
"But do you think you can get very far unless the Russians return the northern islands to Japan?" I asked.
These four small islands to the east of Hokkaido had bedeviled Japan-Soviet relations ever since World War II, when the Soviet Army occupied them illegally, so Tokyo averred. Many of the 20,000 Japanese expelled from the islands when the Russians took them lived in Hokkaido and agitated for their return. In the country at large, there was consensus that they belonged to Japan.
"Oh, those islands," the businessman said. "If you compare them to the totality of Japan's relations with the Soviet Union, they are insignificant. We Japanese should be thinking in much larger terms."
I don't remember much more of our conversation, not even the man's name, but what struck me, in those waning days of the Soviet Union, was his insistence that there were endless opportunities available to Japan in the Soviet Far East if only his countrymen were not so fixated on those islands.
Today, the Soviet Union is no more, but Russia remains Japan's closest neighbor, and Japan cannot change geography. Successive governments in Tokyo since 1956, when relations with Moscow were "normalized," have tried to get the Russians to recognize Japanese sovereignty over the disputed islands, even without actually returning them, but so far quite in vain. In fact, the democratization of Russia may have made retrocession more difficult, in that any government-to-government agreement will have to pass the scrutiny of a parliament that is no mere rubber stamp.
On the Japanese side, relations with Russia have always taken a back seat to relations with China. As with other industrialized democracies, so with Japan: The Chinese market, with its 1.2 billion people, seems endlessly alluring, while at the same time China's growing military clout causes fear and foreboding about the future. Japanese politicians oscillate between sheltering behind the American military shield and trying to play the honest broker between Washington and Beijing.
Compared with China, post-Soviet Russia has seemed chaotic. Japanese business leaders know Russia is rich in oil, gas, coal, and other minerals. But extraction from the frozen tundra of Siberia and the Far East is difficult, and even if there were no territorial issue between the two countries, Japanese business leaders think it will take time for predictability and stability to return to Russia. So they are prepared to wait, even while American and European corporations get involved in huge projects in many parts of the former Soviet Union.
The Japanese are interested in a major offshore oil and gas project in Sakhalin, the large Russian island immediately to the north of Hokkaido, but even here it is other Western oil companies that are playing a leading role. What is missing from this stance is any sense of Japan's stake in the kind of country Russia becomes. The businessman I talked to earlier enthused about Japan's commercial opportunities in Russia, but Japan needs political leaders who are more concerned about Russia's political choices and about any influence, economic or otherwise, that Japan can have on them.
So far, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has shown little interest in the subject, although he will be visiting Russia later this year for a summit with President Vladimir Putin. Progress will be measured only in terms of the stale old question of how far, if only in words, Mr. Putin will give way on the northern islands dispute.
Furthermore, a measurable improvement in Japan's relations with Russia will have an enormous impact on its relations with China. Relations with Washington will be affected as well ultimately, for the better. Don't forget, Russia is already a democracy as yet quite unstable, perhaps, but a democracy nonetheless. China, for all its economic dynamism, is still politically under the tutelage of an authoritarian Communist Party.
There is a limit to the political entente that a democratic Japan can reach with such a China. With Russia, that kind of limit does not exist. Why carry forward the disputes of the old century into the new one, when so many new opportunities beckon?
Takashi Oka is a former Monitor correspondent.