The meeting of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida made at least a few things clear.
Firstly, the foreign ministers laid the groundwork for the upcoming meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
#Lavrov: Political dialogue with Japan, security councils’ contacts, trade, economic, parliamentary, cultural exchanges are gaining traction— MFA Russia (@mfa_russia) 15 April 2016
Secondly, both sides reiterated the importance of deepening economic and trade ties.
But more importantly, Moscow and Tokyo agreed that after the meeting of the two leaders in Russia, we may see a new round of talks on the long-awaited Russo-Japanese peace treaty.
The Big Picture
Sergey Lavrov's visit to Japan was widely discussed in Japanese media weeks in advance, actually way before Russia's Foreign Ministry officially confirmed the date and the schedule of his Tokyo meetings.
The overall tone of the articles in the local press is basically the same, where the authors and newsmakers have focused on the status of the Southern Kuril Islands.
The four islands — Kunashir, Shikotan, Iturup and Habomai — have been administered by Russia since the end of World War II, but Japan still lays claim to them.
The Joint Declaration of 1956 put an end to the state of war between Japan and the Soviet Union. But to this day, there is still no peace treaty between Russia and the Land of the Rising Sun. Russia insists that the 1956 Declaration has to be respected and followed. Japan, in turn, wants to gain control over the islands as part of the peace treaty deal.
Moscow says it is ready to discuss the peace treaty, but according to Sergey Lavrov the issue cannot be reduced to territorial claims.
#Lavrov: The next round of foreign ministry consultations on the Japan peace treaty will take place after Shinzo Abe’s visit to Russia— MFA Russia (@mfa_russia) 15 April 2016
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, members of his cabinet and many representatives of the ruling coalition would certainly like to make a major leap in foreign policy. De jure ending of hostilities with a big neighbor such as Russia would look good on any Japanese politician's resume, and that's why this card is being played by many of them, including Abe. But in doing so, Abe has to listen to those who insist that the islands must be handed over to Japan no matter what.
However, there is also a third force involved, acting like a bull in a china shop.
Who is Trying to Push Tokyo's Buttons?
Despite Tokyo's willingness to improve Russo-Japanese relations, it's a minefield for the country's leaders. They find themselves between the Scylla of domestic nationalism and the Charybdis of the Obama administration's anti-Russian stance.
Washington warned Japanese officials that the US is against Tokyo's attempts to improve relations with Moscow.
Members of the Obama administration didn't like the idea of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting Russia and meeting with President Putin, a sentiment which Washington voiced openly.
#Lavrov: We want to move forward, which means radically improving the spirit of Russian-Japanese relations and removing artificial barriers— MFA Russia (@mfa_russia) 15 April 2016
In a recent interview with Chinese, Mongolian and Japanese press, Sergey Lavrov called Washington's statements "outrageous" and expressed hopes that his Japanese colleagues understand this and look upon it in a way that such unacceptable manners should be looked upon.
Even though further details of Shinzo Abe's unofficial visit to Russia will be announced later, it's clear that even despite the pressure coming from the US, he's willing to negotiate.
But whether both sides will find a quick and effective solution to the problems that bothered them for decades, including the formal "no-peace situation" and the territorial issues — remains to be seen.