Yasuo Fukada, Japan's embattled Prime Minister, will travel to Moscow this week to discuss a bitter territorial dispute that has rumbled on for over six decades.
The Kuril Islands dispute, which concerns the status of four islands off Hokkaido captured by Russia during the final days of the Second World War, has precluded the two countries from signing a peace treaty formalising the end of their wartime hostilities.
The meeting represents an opportunity for Fukuda to earn some much-needed credit back home. Stalemate between Japan's ruling coalition and the main opposition party has caused Fukuda's domestic approval ratings to plummet. Yet the islands are a cause célèbre for nationalists in Japan and Fukuda will be hoping to use the upcoming visit as a means of demonstrating his nationalist credentials.
His Russian counterparts are unlikely to make the sort of concessions he needs. Moscow is aware that the relationship between the two states is asymmetrical. Tokyo sees closer ties with Russia as a means of counterbalancing its growing economic dependence on China. This has allowed Moscow to play an increasingly assertive role in their bilateral relationship:
- Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi discussed the Kurils with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G8 summit in St Petersburg in 2006. The two sides could not agree a joint statement on the matter and Putin actually hardened Russia's position.
- Russia has seized scores of Japanese vessels fishing in the waters around the islands, and in August 2006, a Japanese fisherman was shot and killed by Russian border troops.
- Last February, Tokyo made an official complaint to Moscow regarding an alleged incursion into Japanese airspace by a Russian military aircraft.
Despite the increased economic cooperation between the two powers, they harbour a deep mutual mistrust for one another. Japanese hopes of a breakthrough look misplaced.