Maruyama Hodaka’s “War with Russia” Quip and Its Impact on Russo-Japanese Relations


Lawmaker Maruyama Hodaka’s comment that war with Russia could be the only way for Japan to regain the Northern Territories got him expelled from his opposition party. It could also cast a shadow over the Japan-Russia summit meeting scheduled to take place in Osaka next month, warns Russia specialist Satō Masaru.

Satō Masaru

Born in Tokyo in 1960. Former senior analyst in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he earned high marks from his overseas counterparts as a diplomatic intelligence specialist. After studying Russian at the British Defence School of Languages, worked in the Japanese embassy in Moscow, building a network of information channels in the Kremlin. As an author, his works include Kokka no wana (The Trap of the State) and Jikai suru teikoku (The Self-Destructing Empire).

Words That Went Too Far

INTERVIEWER  The Nippon Ishin no Kai’s Maruyama Hodaka came under fire for his May 11 comment, during a visa-free trip to the Russia-held Northern Territories along with Japanese former residents of the islands, that Japan would need to go to war with Russia if it wanted to retake control of them. To get a grasp on the significance of Maruyama’s gaffe, it might help to understand more about these visa-free exchange trips.

SATŌ MASARU  Russia and Japan come at the question of the Northern Territories from entirely different positions. This is precisely why the visa-free visits to the islands by Japanese make sense—because they allow citizens from a country claiming the territory to visit them while another country holds them without triggering diplomatic inconsistencies. For this very reason, something like the Maruyama statement can threaten to undermine the entire system in place. It all rests on this delicate glasswork of bilateral negotiations to date. Today, thanks to Maruyama’s reckless words and actions, it’s all in danger of shattering.

In any case, to give a more detailed explanation, I would note that Russia now wields effective control over the Japan-claimed Northern Territories. The Japanese government, meanwhile, has taken the position that Russia is illegally occupying these islands. For this reason, from the Japanese perspective, it would hardly do for Japanese citizens to present their passports, obtain visas from Russian immigration authorities, and use those to visit these islands on the basis of Russian permission to do so. Indeed, the Japanese government has expressed its wishes through cabinet pronouncements that its citizens avoid visiting the Northern Territories on the basis of Russia-issued visas.

INTERVIEWER  But doesn’t this place the former islanders in danger of never being able to return to their old homes, or to visit the graves of their ancestors there?

SATŌ  This is precisely why humanitarian concerns have made space for visa-free visits by the Japanese—former residents of the islands, along with members of Japan’s National Diet, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and media representatives. They can cross over to the Northern Territories without any special procedures. When Japanese citizens travel to the main islands of these territories, they can travel with only some form of identification along with a separate form they have filled out. Since they don’t carry a passport, this allows them to visit the territories without formally recognizing Russian control over the places they visit. The Russians, meanwhile, officially view the personal ID as equivalent to a passport, and the form as equivalent to a visa application, thereby maintaining their pretense that the Japanese are entering Russian territory in the proper manner.

INTERVIEWER  So Maruyama’s statement earlier this month dealt a devastating blow to this “delicate glasswork” you talk about.

SATŌ  Exactly. It was during one of these visa-free trips to Kunashiri, one of the Northern Territory islands, late this spring. On May 11, according to press reports—apparently under the influence of alcohol—he cornered the head of the Japanese delegation with his “Don’t you agree that Japan can’t do a thing about these territories unless it goes to war for them” quip.

This is not the sort of thing that can be written off as a drunken misstatement, though. Maruyama pressed the issue afterward, continuing to state his case in a loud voice and even breaking longstanding rules set by the two sides by trying to leave the grounds of the House of Friendship, the bilateral relations facility nicknamed “Muneo House” in Japanese circles after Suzuki Muneo, the former Japanese lawmaker who helped push for its establishment. According to others who were there during this trip, he then sought to make his way to a nearby bar where Russian women were serving drinks and offering companionship.

INTERVIEWER  By leaving this facility, he would have been breaking bilaterally decided rules? This isn’t something that has been touched on in media reports so far.

SATŌ  If Maruyama had actually left the facility grounds, shouting and causing a ruckus in his drunken state, it could have led to a profound diplomatic problem. If he made it outside the House of Friendship and ended up in the custody of the Russian police, what would the outcome have been if he had made his “war to retake the islands” statements to them? We could have ended up with a Japanese legislator arrested by the Russian authorities, who almost certainly have rules against words or actions seeking to foment conflict.

INTERVIEWER  It looks like we managed to avoid this sort of serious situation this time around. Given the Japanese government’s position of not recognizing Russian administration of the islands, it could have led to a truly sticky situation between the two sides. 

SATŌ  In Japan, no legal culpability arises due to an individual’s incitement of war, so the Japanese government would have to request that he be released from Russian custody. This would mean adopting a position of defending Maruyama and his violent statements, even if that’s the last thing the government wanted to be seen doing. This in turn could lead to Russia doing away with the visa-free visit system in its entirety or canceling the sideline meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Abe Shinzō at the G20 Summit set to take place in Osaka this June. Even if things didn’t go this far, they certainly wouldn’t be heading in a positive direction.

It has to be said that Maruyama still seems unaware of just how serious this situation is that he brought about. He’s still staking out an unrepentant stance, refusing to even consider stepping down from his seat in the House of Representatives.

Undermining Japan’s Negotiating Position

INTERVIEWER  It’s clear that the situation is indeed serious. On the whole, though, Russia appears to be showing a rather subdued response to it all. How do you view this development?

SATŌ  I think it’s fair to say that Japanese government officials and Russia specialists, not wanting this incident to negatively impact the already-dicey negotiations underway between Japan and Russia, stepped in to urge the Russian side to respond coolly to the Maruyama gaffe.

Russian Ambassador to Japan Mikhail Galuzin telephoned Suzuki Muneo to ask him how he should respond to Maruyama’s comment. As the ambassador later told me, Suzuki’s advice was: “This was a wild statement made by a drunk person who was far outside the bounds of socially acceptable behavior. It shouldn’t be treated as politically significant.” Galuzin immediately sent an official cable to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, relating Suzuki’s take on the situation. For the time being, there’s a bit of breathing space in relations between our countries, but if Maruyama clings to his seat in the lower house and makes still more outlandish statements, we could see a less-than-ideal situation unfold as we move toward the planned Abe-Putin summit next month.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: House of Representatives member Maruyama Hodaka arrives at a May 20, 2019, meeting of the Committee on Audit and Oversight of Administration at the National Diet. © Jiji.)

diplomacy Russia Northern Territories scandal