Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido seems, unfortunately, poised to jump into the headlines as East Asia's next flashpoint for Great Power confrontation. When North Korea fired a missile over Japan last month, it was this northern island that the rocket passed over. Buried deep in the New York Times account of the incident is the fact that in addition to the routine annual US-South Korean military exercises then underway along the DMZ, "The United States has also been conducting joint exercises with Japanese forces for the past two weeks." And specifically (the Times didn't note) on Hokkaido. The Diplomat informs us that the exercises were dubbed Northern Viper and involved Japan Self-Defense Forces troops and US Marines operating out of Misawa Air Base, the northernmost US base in Japan, just across Tsugaru Strait from Hokkaido on the northern tip of Honshu. The USMC boasts that the exercises were unprecedented, marking the first joint US-Japanese maneuvers on Hokkaido.
Now, just a week after the close of Northern Viper, Russia is undertaking its own exercises immediately to the north of Hokkaido, rehearsing for combat against amphibious landings on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. The drill is centered on Sakhalin's Uspenovskii training range, separated from Hokkaido only by Laperuza (La Perouse) strait. (Newsweek, Sept. 4)
As we have noted, this is partly contested territory. The Soviet Union seized southern Sakhalin Island and the Kurils in the closing days of World War II, but Japan maintains a claim to the four southernmost islands of the Kuril chain. The dispute over these islands—called the Northern Territories in Japan—has prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing a treaty to officially end their World War II hostilities.
Japan and Russia are to meet at a summit in Vladivostok this week, ostensibly to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program. (Newsweek) But the military exercises were not exactly a winning way to build trust ahead of the talks.
And, as we've noted before, neither Russia nor Japan has expressed interest in recognizing the territorial claims of the islands' Ainu indigenous people. Japan is said to be just now considering a first step in this direction. Kyodo news agency reports that Japan's central government is preparing legislation to officially recognize the Ainu (native to Hokkaido, Sakhalin and the Kurils alike) as an "indigenous people," affording them territorial rights under the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The government did issue a statement in 2008 recognizing the Ainu as an "indigenous people that have their own language, religious and cultural identity," but it was never codified.
A law was enacted in 1997 aimed at preserving Ainu culture and guaranteeing their human rights—a century after the government introduced an assimilation policy that officially restricted use of their language and practice of their cultural traditions. This was Japan's first legislation acknowledging the existence of an ethnic minority, but it stopped short of acknowledging that the Ainu are an indigenous people. As recently as 1986, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone declared that "Japan is a homogeneous nation."
Meanwhile, as the Great Powers face off over Ainu land, Japanese leaders just can't seem to stop inadvertently reminding the world that their country was on the wrong side in World War II. Finance Minister Taro Aso, who has time and again displayed his emulation of fascism, has just treated us to another such verbal gem. He was forced to eat his own words after an outcry over his latest such statement. Aso told a meeting of a group within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, "Hitler, who killed millions of people, was no good even if his motive was right." He later issued a garbled and half-hearted retraction that utterly failed to make clear what "right motive" he thought Hitler had. (The Guardian, Aug. 30)
Apart from all the other reasons this is abhorrent, it will provide very convenient propaganda for Putin if things really do escalate across Laperuza strait. Putin's Russia displays its own abundance of fascist tendencies, but has deftly exploited the memory of World War II to portray its aggression in Ukraine as "anti-fascism"—a particularly sickening example of the alarming phenomenon of fascist pseudo-anti-fascism.
Whatever ambitions Japanese revanchists may nurture, Tokyo is unlikely to make an unprovoked grab for the southern Kurils. So Putin's war games there seem a clear provocation and ritual humiliation of the Japanese. And for all the oppression the Ainu have faced in Japan, Moscow has never recognized their existence at all, leading to the near-complete erasure of their identity and culture in Russian territory. (WikiWikiup)
Anti-war voices around the world should be demanding that the US, Japan and Russia alike chill out with their provocations, and recognize Ainu territorial rights either side of the international border.