In Japanese culture, the most important information lies between the lines—how things are said is more important than what is actually said, and oftentimes the overall context is more important than the text itself. One of the highest forms of art in Japan is what the Japanese dub “reading the air”—picking up on hints, intonation, non-verbal cues, and everything else that the Japanese use instead of the words “yes” and “no.”

When Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in Sochi on May 6, a small but remarkable departure from protocol signaled something significant.  

As host, Vladimir Putin opened their meeting, and he adopted a standard formal tone, greeting his guest and emphasizing Japan’s importance as one of Russia’s key partners in the Asia-Pacific region. Russians have grown to expect a kind of stodgy, protocol-driven diplomacy from the Japanese. But Abe’s response was unexpectedly friendly and warm. Abe’s greeting was translated into Russian with the use of ty, the familiar form of “you.”

Following this transition to a familiar “you,” the Japanese prime minister came out to talk to journalists after the meeting and boasted of a “new approach” to the decades-old issue dividing the two countries—their failure to sign a peace treaty more than 70 years after the end of World War II—and an eight-point plan to revitalize economic relations. Putin and Abe have now made plans for negotiations between their deputy foreign ministers in June 2016 and then for a visit by Abe to Vladivostok in September. 

The capture of four of the small Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territories) by the Soviet Union in 1945, at the end of World War II, has cast a shadow over relations between the two countries ever since. The two states re-established diplomatic relations but never signed a peace treaty.  

As neither side has expounded upon this “new approach” thus far, it is now up to the political analysts to “read the air.” The first explanation is that Abe has stuck with the traditional Japanese proposal of “peace treaty plus four islands,” balanced by a sizable economic cooperation package. One factor tipping the scales in favor of this theory is that there have been no changes to date in Tokyo’s official position that all of the Kuril Islands are, in fact, Japanese. An unnamed member of the Japanese delegation made sure to mention this in a recent interview to the newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

The economic package looks more like a goody bag than a program for mutually beneficial cooperation. Of the eight sectors cited by Abe (energy, transportation, agriculture, technology, healthcare, urban infrastructure, culture, and small and medium-sized business), only the first can offer Japan any tangible benefits.

This theory fits well with the overall pattern of Russo-Japanese relations. Russia is eager to talk economics and reluctant to discuss the disputed islands. Japan is interested in the islands and—for various reasons—unenthused about economic relations. 

This suggests it is unlikely that Tokyo and Moscow can find a win-win solution. First of all, one side would have to give up much more than the other. Russia would have to soften its firm stance on the Kuril Islands, concede the sovereignty of the islands themselves, and deal a blow to its citizens’ national pride, which grew after the country’s costly campaign in Crimea. Japan’s costs by contrast would be of a strictly economic nature.

Moreover, there is nothing conceptually new about this approach. Back in 1997, then Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and then Russian president Boris Yeltsin discussed a similar economic package in Krasnoyarsk (that particular goody bag contained six gifts) and agreed to sign a peace treaty by 2000.

The second theory is that Abe bit the bullet and offered Putin the blueprint of the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration containing a “treaty plus two islands” with certain other conditions. Moscow does not find this model particularly objectionable: Russia would keep the two larger islands (Kunashir and Iturup) and give Japan the two smaller ones (Shikotan and Habomai) as a gesture of goodwill. The “certain other conditions” could include a pledge as part of the peace treaty to continue talks on the status of Kunashir and Iturup in the future, to demilitarize the islands, or to create a special economic zone there with preferential access for Japanese citizens and capital.

The second theory seems more plausible since the 1956 declaration is currently the only document on the status of the Kuril Islands that has been signed and ratified by both sides. This means that neither Tokyo nor Moscow view the idea as being outright objectionable. Furthermore, the phrase “new approach” by definition presumes something novel. The statement of the unnamed Japanese diplomat about Tokyo’s unchanged position can be interpreted as reflecting Tokyo’s reasonable desire to save face and prevent premature leaks of information. Finally, the resounding silence of both sides on the details of the “new approach” suggests that they may be considering some bold new moves, since there would be little benefit in concealing something that has been discussed numerous times before. 

The timing of the planned Russo-Japanese negotiations may have some significance—Abe is scheduled to visit Russia in September 2016 (following the elections to the upper chamber of the Japanese parliament) and Putin is expected to make a reciprocal visit to Japan, which Abe wants to happen once real progress has been made in the talks. Putin’s visit will clearly take place after the upcoming parliamentary elections in Russia. Thus, both countries could minimize the potential effects a compromise on their territorial dispute would have on their domestic elections and stay as flexible as possible when negotiating.

As we have no substantive information on the “new approach,” both theories can be viewed as plausible. Considering the past history of Russo-Japanese relations, most likely a new attempt at signing a peace treaty will end in failure. And yet, given the Japanese prime minister’s uncharacteristic enthusiasm and his eagerness to meet with Mr. Putin, one can only hope for the best this time around. 

  • Maxim Krylov