November 2023 | Letter from Hokkaido

Muneo Suzuki divides opinion, but his views on Russia still resonate in his eastern Hokkaido base

Video screenshot of Muneo Suzuki during a press conference at the FCCJ in 2016

There aren’t many Japanese politicians like Muneo Suzuki. Nor are there many who must be introduced with the word “former”. Former Liberal Democratic Party member; former cabinet minister for Hokkaido and Okinawa; former deputy chief cabinet secretary; former member of the lower house of the National Diet. And, as of last month, former member of Nippon Ishin no Kai.

But Suzuki is also a former prison inmate and a former cancer patient who has overcome incredible personal and professional obstacles to remain, at age 75, a now independent upper house politician. His friendship with Russia, which has continued since its invasion of Ukraine, has angered many outside his political base in eastern Hokkaido, where he continues to receive support, although with less vigor than in the past.

Suzuki was forced by Nippon Ishin to resign from the party after visiting Moscow in October and telling Russian media he was certain the Kremlin would prevail in its war against Ukraine.

Nippon Ishin, facing growing questions in its own base of Osaka about the chaotic preparations for the 2025 World Expo, is not politically strong enough to tolerate members who anger the LDP and upset the status quo on an issue as important as Russia. Especially now that Nippon Ishin must go cap in hand to the same LDP it attacks on other issues to request more government money to cover skyrocketing Expo costs.

Suzuki’s decision to join Nippon Ishin was always a marriage of political convenience. He had the name value in Hokkaido that Nippon Ishin was looking for and brought to the party a degree of foreign policy expertise – an area in which younger members of the domestically focused Nippon Ishin had precious little experience and even less interest.

That relationship has now ended and Suzuki is once again persona non grata in Tokyo and elsewhere due to his Moscow comments and criticism of the way Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has handled Japan’s response to Russia since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

People outside Hokkaido, including those in Nagatacho and Kasumigaseki, often have difficulty understanding that Suzuki’s views on Russia, and his call for a ceasefire, are supported by a lot of people in Japan’s northernmost prefecture.

Notsuke Peninsula in Nemuro, Hokkaido - Drone shot by Julio Shiiki, 2021

That is particularly noticeable in the Kushiro and Nemuro regions, where Japan’s relationship with Russia is not an abstract geopolitical game played by defense policy wonks and politicians in Tokyo, but something that directly impacts people's daily lives.

Without Russian cooperation, visits by former residents of the Northern Territories to their ancestral graves on the four islands would be impossible, and Japan’s fishing fleets based in Kushiro, Nemuro, or Rausu (in sight of Russian-held Kunashiri) or in Utoro, in the Sea of Okhotsk, would not be able to operate in Russian territorial waters. 

“I went to Moscow because of the grave visits and the fishing industry, as well as to ask for a ceasefire,” Suzuki told Soichiro Tahara in the November 15 edition of Sunday Mainichi. 

“In 1945, 17,291 people were evacuated from the Northern Territories to Japan, but there are just 5,228 left today. Two-thirds have died, and the former islanders’ average age is now 88. With tears in their eyes, those in Nemuro and Rausu said they wanted to see their ancestral graves one last time, and asked me to go to Russia to work something out,” Suzuki added.

In addition, he said, the waters around the Northern Territories are among the world’s four largest fishing grounds. But Japanese sanctions against Russia gave Moscow reason to retaliate by delaying talks on vessel safety and effectively preventing Japanese fleets from operating in Russian waters under previous bilateral agreements, some of which Suzuki was heavily involved in negotiating.

That, in turn, has impacted the livelihoods of people in coastal towns such as Nemuro, Rausu, Shibetsu, and Betsukai – all areas where Suzuki has traditionally received a lot of votes. According to his own account, he had hoped to convince Russian authorities to allow Japanese fishing boats based in eastern Hokkaido to cast their nets in Russian waters this autumn and winter.

That kind of loyalty to constituents, coupled with his determination to keep the door open with Russia, is why Suzuki continues to remain in office, despite numerous controversies and the fact that younger people in urbanized westerns parts of Hokkaido, which is not as reliant on Russian goodwill, view him as a political relic.

In his excellent new book, Hidden Japan, Alex Kerr writes about little-known communities far from the tourist trail. Suzuki has long represented one of Japan’s most remote areas – the open plains and isolated coastal towns of eastern Hokkaido, where only the boldest travelers bother to venture. It is an area where 22C is considered a heat wave and thick fog covers the cliffs, coastal roads and farms, and where howling gales and sub-zero temperatures are part of daily life during the winter months.

The people of eastern Hokkaido have grown accustomed to being forgotten, ignored, or dismissed as unsophisticated fishermen and farmers – people whose needs bureaucrats in Tokyo, and even in Hokkaido, will always put last.

Suzuki has long been their voice – often the lone voice – on the national stage. Love him or loathe him, it is hard to think of another Japanese politician as resilient and as fearless as Suzuki when it comes to courting controversy and challenging the status quo on foreign affairs. Whatever his other motivations, it is clear he believes he is doing the right thing for “his” people.

Eric Johnston is the Senior National Correspondent for the Japan Times. Views expressed within are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Japan Times.