Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2011.02.22

The Arrival of Russians To Our Northern Territories

Over the New Year's holidays, I read Ryotaro Shiba's six-volume historical novel, "Nano Hana No Oki."

During the Edo period, a handful of Russians came to Japan. As I had not been very familiar with Russia, I had been under the impression that those people arrived rather suddenly from that cold land. Our textbooks were more focused on Western Europe and did not provide us with explanations about the situation with respect to Russia.

In point of fact, three Russians -- Adam Laxman, Nikolai Rezanov and Yevfimy Putyatin -- all came to Japan at the command of Russian czars. Those who arrived later would learn from their predecessors. Laxman and Rezanov were involved in the fur trade. In Irkutsk, the administrative center for far eastern Russia, stood a Japanese language school, which was visited by the famous Kodayu Daikokuya. The school was small, with only several Japanese castaways as teachers; however, in those days, it was rare to have any Japanese language school in Russia. It was not until 1791 that Kodayu was given an audience with Catherine the Great, but, by that time, Russia had already amassed a substantial amount of knowledge about Japan.

By contrast, Japan hardly knew anything about Russia. This was principally due to Japan's pursuit of a policy of isolation. This does not mean, however, that Japan had totally ignored its northern areas. Japanese such as Rinzo Mamiya, Tadataka Inou, and Tokunai Mogami had explored Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, and the results of their explorations were first rate.

Reading Ryotaro Shiba's novel was quite a pleasure, as I was able to put my fragmentary knowledge of that period into the context of broader Japan-Russia relations.

More recently, last autumn, Russian President Medvedev visited Kunashiri island. This visit flexed the Russian muscle in the face of the Japanese people, who fervently wish to have the northern islands returned to Japan, and it demonstrated the extent to which bilateral relations have deteriorated. It was not always the case, however, that the two countries have had such poor relations.

Although one cannot simply compare events from two hundred years ago with those of today, when Kahee Takataya, the central character in the novel "Nano Hana No Oki," was detained by Captain Pyotr Ricord of the Russian Naval sloop Diana, both Kahee and Ricord collaborated to negotiate the release of Vasily Golovnin for over a year until Golovnin was ultimately released. The trust and cooperation between these two stand in contrast to President Medvedev's visit to Kunashiri.

First, two hundred years ago, Russians were quite friendly. This was true not only of the people but also of the Russian government, and especially of the czarist court, as recounted by Kodayu Daikokuya after his return to Japan.

Second, Kahee and Captain Ricord showed to each of their respective fellow citizens that a Russian and a Japanese can establish a relationship of trust with one another. After the first few exchanges, Captain Ricord immediately saw that Kahee was to be respected (cf. P. I Ricord "Record of Negotiations with Japan") and he would eventually let him sleep in his Captain's cabin. Kahee, in return, came to trust Ricord deeply.

Third, both parties recognized that they needed to express their feelings candidly, as well as, on occasion, restrain them, and they acted accordingly. Such behavior did not impair their trust, which only increased over time.

The fact that the two sides were able to develop such relations, along with the outstanding qualities of the Japanese was conveyed to the rest of the world by Golovnin. This dissemination of information helped to correct the images of the Japanese that had been drawn by the Jesuit missionaries and the Dutch. The arrest of Golovnin, and, as a result of Kahee and Ripcord's negotiations, his subsequent release were not only major events in Russo-Japanese relations, but also had international significance.

Although, in the fields of sports and ballet, Japan and Russia have been able to maintain the positive and cooperative relations that were first established two hundred years ago, that has not been the case in politics and security. Not only did President Medvedev make his visit to Kunashiri, but the Russians continue to state defiantly that their victory in the Second World War justifies their occupation of the northern territories. I'd like to remind the Russians that Russia entered the War in violation of the Russo-Japanese Neutrality Pact and that close to a million Japanese POWs were subjected to inhuman treatment in Siberia.

Although bilateral relations currently are at a very low ebb, I do not want to be too pessimistic about all aspects of relations between the two countries. With the start of the New Year, we should remember that, in the past, the two countries have endeavored to build positive relations and that we should hope for better relations in the future.