Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:October 20th, 2009 09:51 EST
Far East Perspective on Middle East Peace

Far East Perspective on Middle East Peace

By Geoff Dean

A long term occupation of more than sixty years. Debates about the right of return versus some form of compensation. Obstinance from "settler" communities. An interminable series of peace negotiations that go nowhere, with both sides accusing the other of intransigence and right wingers on both sides attacking even the most modest proposals. Historical claims and counter claims going back centuries. Sound like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? That was the idea. Still, in fact, I am talking about the "Northern Islands" dispute between Japan and Russia.

 At the end of World War II, the then Soviet Union occupied (or re-occupied, depending on your perspective) some islands off the coast of Hokkaido (or Sakhalin, depending on your perspective). In Japan, they are referred to as the islands of Kunishiri, Shikotan, Etorofu, and the Habomai chain. Not surprisingly, there are also Russian names, as well. Japanese geography textbooks refer to these islands as an integral part of Japan, as much as Tokyo or Osaka, and rightwing protest groups hold demonstrations to demand their return from time to time. Some Tokyo stations even feature maps and signs demanding that Russia return the "stolen" islands.

 Russia, for its part, claims that it was only returning to Russian sovereignty, islands that were pilfered by Japan during World War II. These claims and counterclaims, in fact, go back centuries as the two nations have often sparred in the area.

 The islands are currently "settled" by Russians, many sent against their will by Stalin, while the former Japanese inhabitants are mostly in the Hokkaido town of Nemuro. The whole question of the right of return, including grave visitation rights, a very serious topic in Japan, versus compensation from the Russian authorities is frequently and acrimoniously debated here.

 A proposal some years back to return some of the islands and leave the others for settlement later was shot down by right-wingers on both sides. The Japanese righties demanded all or nothing while the Russian righties condemned any capitulation. The end result is that some sixty years after the end of World War II, Russia and Japan have still never signed a peace treaty. Newly elected Prime Minister Hatoyama has made it a "priority" but then again, so has every other prime minister to this point. Putin has similarly promised to "fast track" the issue but I believe I have heard that one before as well.

 What does all this have to do with the Middle East troubles, beyond a clumsy attempt at drawing parallels? Despite the disagreement, and frosty Russo-Japanese relations, there are no suicide bombers, no rocket attacks, no invasions, no bulldozing, and so on.

 Despite what we may hear and believe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while complicated and connected to many factors including religion, culture, language, history, and the like, is not unique. As a matter of fact, disputes over borders and territories are extremely common, especially in Asia. Japan has disputes with Korea (Takeshima Island) and China (Senkaku Islands) in addition to the Russia one. Cambodia and Vietnam are at loggerheads over an island. North and South Korea have sea border issues. Of course, Pakistan and India are in disagreement as are Russia and China or border matters. Less known are disputes between Pakistan and Iran, many of the Central Asian former Soviet republics, Iraq and Kuwait, Iraq and Syria, Syria and Lebanon, Thailand and Malaysia, and so on. Countries without border disputes are in fact, most rare.

 While I don`t claim to have the solution to the Middle East problems, if Israelis and Palestinians can see that their situation is by no means unique and that they may be able to learn from similar problems between other states, won`t it be a step in the right direction?