Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda held his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Los Cabos, Mexico, prior to the Group of 20 summit and they agreed to "reactivate" talks on the long-standing territorial dispute over the Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan islands and the Habomai islet group off Hokkaido.
Mr. Putin said that he was basically ready to start such talks. While a quick breakthrough cannot be expected, it is important — as Mr. Noda has acknowledged — that the talks proceed on the basis of a series of bilateral accords and documents as well as the principle of law and justice.
Since the Democratic Party of Japan assumed power in September 2009, the Japanese government has displayed a lack of dexterity and astuteness in its dealings with Russia.
In November 2010, Japan failed to stop then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev from becoming the first Russian leader to set foot on the Japan-claimed Northern Territories when he visited Kunashiri Island.
No DPJ prime ministers have visited Russia, either.
Mr. Noda should make efforts to build a personal and trustful relationship with Mr. Putin. More importantly, Japan must develop an effective strategy to deepen Japanese-Russian relations that includes a resolution on the territorial dispute, an expansion of bilateral economic cooperation and progress in security dialogue over Northeast Asia and the Far East.
In meeting with Mr. Putin, a black belt in judo, Mr. Noda said that he wanted to make their meeting the "hajime" — meaning the start of a match in judo parlance — for future talks between Japanese and Russian foreign ministers and working-level officials.
The two leaders agreed on a plan for Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba to visit Moscow in July.
The Japanese government hopes that after a September meeting between Mr. Noda and Mr. Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok, Mr. Noda will visit Moscow by the end of the year and start full-scale talks on the territorial issue.
Mr. Noda and Mr. Putin also agreed to cooperate on the construction of a liquefied natural gas plant in Vladivostok and on the Sakhalin-3 project to develop oil and natural gas off Sakhalin Island. Japan needs to consider how to link such economic cooperation with progress on the territorial issue.
Mr. Putin apparently wants to solve the territorial issue by handing over Shikotan Island and the Habomai islet group to Japan on the basis of the 1956 Japan-Russia joint declaration.
The Japanese government, which is demanding the return of all four islands, must adopt a unified and effective approach to deal with the Russian position.