However, there is every reason to believe that the next couple of years in Japanese foreign policy will be devoted to drastic improvement in bilateral ties, which is seen by both sides as a major step toward settling years-long dispute, experts told Sputnik.
At the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), Putin proposed signing a peace treaty between Russia and Japan until the end of the year without any preconditions.
The statement came after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the EEF session that he and Putin would make every effort to conclude a peace treaty between the two countries.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry later refrained from commenting on Putin's statements, noting that Tokyo's position on the peace agreement with Russia had not changed, and that the talks on the treaty should follow the settlement of the territorial dispute around the South Kurils, not the other way round.
The fact that Japan and Russia have never signed a permanent peace treaty after the end of World War II has long been a stumbling block in bilateral relations. The main issue standing in the way of a treaty is an agreement concerning a group of four islands that both countries claim — Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai, collectively referred to as the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan.
Putin’s statement is not the first time when Russian leader proposes a deadline for a peace treaty to be signed.
Back in 1997, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto agreed to take maximum efforts to sign the treaty until 2000 on the basis of the Tokyo declaration.
In March 2012, Putin proposed seeking a "hikiwake," a judo term for draw, to settle bilateral disagreements, which would mean a mutually acceptable outcome for both sides, which would have left neither country on a winning or losing side.
According to Kazuhiko Togo, a retired Japanese diplomat and the director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University, Putin’s offer should be analyzed within the "overall context" of the two leaders’ years-long efforts to improve bilateral relations, without avoiding the thorny issue of the peace treaty.
"Six years have passed since both President Putin and Prime Minister Abe took their offices in 2012, and during this period, despite the fact that there has been the suspension of negotiations for two years over Ukraine-Crimea crisis, and despite the difficult situation caused by the fact that the Russian problem has taken on a special meaning in the US domestic politics, the intention of both leaders [that could be phrased as] ‘we would like to drastically improve the relationship between Japan and Russia … and we will not avoid the problem of peace treaty, which has been considered difficult, [and should] … be solved in a form that will convince both sides,’ just seems to be indomitable," he told Sputnik.
Togo expressed belief that Abe would be re-elected later in September for another three-year term and would set further "drastic improvement" of ties with Russia as one of foreign policy priorities.
"I am convinced that the most important of the remaining three years' diplomatic tasks will become a drastic improvement in relations with Russia. The remarks of the prime minister in Vladivostok have just summarized it," Togo said.
The expert noted that Putin’s offer, in turn, was, first of all, "reaffirmation of his firm belief that the conclusion of a peace treaty is the utmost important task."
"Secondly, such bold remarks were more likely something to, as Buddhist say, ‘put life’ in Prime Minister Abe who is facing reelection, by stating ‘let’s sign a peace treaty while enhancing trust relationship between the two countries and showing flexible thinking,’ and I believe it would be appropriate for the Japanese side to respond to such ‘fighting spirit’ by saying ‘thank you, we will do our best,’" the expert added.
Thirdly, the expert suggested that "sufficient opinions have been exchanged in the various discussions of the two leaders over the past six years," which probably have not been articulated publicly but could become a potential basis for a peace treaty.
Fourthly, the former diplomat opined that the 1956 Soviet–Japanese joint declaration could become a future basis for the territorial dispute’s settlement.
"It goes without saying that we should talk about with each other about concrete environment, framework and conditions for its implementation, and carefully consider how to convince people concerned in both Russia and Japan," he suggested.
With regard to Kunashir and Iturup, the expert doubted that it was possible to "reach agreement on ‘four island at once’ with handing over the sovereignty over these two islands to Japan simultaneously [with Habomai and Shikotan]."
"There may have been a time in the Russian-Japanese relations during the past 70 years when such an agreement could be reached, but I think that there is no such possibility anymore," he pointed out.
The expert stressed the need to continue the countries’ joint projects and "to make the islands symbolize the friendship and cooperation of Japan and Russia" and suggested that Tokyo and Moscow could produce a peace treaty in the forthcoming three years.
"It is definitely feasible to bring it to the conclusion of a peace treaty in accordance with the road map agreed this time. I cannot answer exactly how long it will be, but I am confident that it could be implemented within Prime Minister Abe's term for the remaining three years," Togo concluded.