Soviet-Japanese treaty: Who gives a hoot?

The Japanese golden eagle and the Blakiston's fish-owl could be forgiven. How could they know they were the cause of an international dispute? The eagle and the owl have been blithely nesting in the Kurile Islands. All the while they have been holding up a treaty between Japan and the Soviet Union.

The reason? The two countries can't agree who owns the islands they live on.

Fifteen years ago Japan and the Soviet Union signed but did not ratify a treaty to protect migratory birds from hunting and destruction of their nests. The treaty covers 287 species, most of whom find the Japanese winter a welcome relief from Siberia's frozen waste.

The treaty included an exchange of lists of endangered species. One look at the Soviet list, and the Japanese staunchly refused to ratify the treaty. The list described the four southern-most Kurile Islands as a Soviet-owned residence of the eagle and the owl.

The Japanese don't question Soviet ornithologists. The eagle and owl in question certainly live there. The problem is that the Japanese dispute the Soviet claim to the islands. The ``Northern Territories,'' as the Japanese call the Kuriles, were ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the settlement of World War II, but Japan has refused to accept the legality of the Soviet possession. Improvement in Japanese-Soviet relations has been held up by the Japanese demand for return of the four islands.

``The way birds look at it, its stupid to talk about the four islands,'' says Norio Yanagisawa of the Japanese Association for the Preservation of Birds. ``They don't care about borders made by humans. They cross those borders whenever they like.''

The humans have finally come around to the birds' point of view. Just in time for the visit of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to Tokyo next week, they found a way to ratify the treaty and still keep their pride. They took the eagle off the list and fudged the location of the owl, so that there is no mention of Soviet ownership of the islands in the treaty.

A Japanese Foreign Ministry official hailed this diplomatic achievement, saying he hoped it would become a``symbol of the spirit'' of the Soviet minister's visit.

Needless to say, the owl doesn't give a hoot.

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