Vladimir Putin is slated to visit Japan on December 15 and 16. He will arrive at a small airport on the western edge of Japan's main island and stay at a traditionalonsen (hot spring) inn located in the hometown of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. There, Messrs. Putin and Abe will hold an unusual tête-à-tête — one between two middle-aged, naked men, bathing in the warm waters of Nagato city.
The ultimate goal of the prime minister is to forge, at long last, a bilateral peace treaty formally ending World War II, something that has eluded the two sides due to a dispute over the sovereignty of four islands north of Japan that the Red Army seized two weeks after the war ended. The task is formidable, but if the two leaders can resolve the territorial dispute, the path to a peace treaty will be cleared.
Were this a sumo match, this would be the first time since Mr. Putin returned to power that Tokyo had a wrestler both heavy enough and sufficiently resolved to fight Moscow. A Japanese premier in office only for a year or two would never be able to enter the ring. Shinzo Abe has accrued political muscle over nearly four years in office and is the most important new factor in helping to break the long stalemate between the two sides.
The second new factor is that Shinzo Abe has incentivized Vladimir Putin to enter the ring. Based on the Russian President's most recent annual “state of the union” address to the Russian parliament, Tokyo developed an eight-point plan for promoting bilateral cooperation.
At the top of the list are proposals to help improve Russia's health care and its urban infrastructure—areas that Mr. Putin often talks about because they are such a major concern to ordinary Russians. Mr. Putin made it known to the Russian public that he is greatly appreciative of the Japanese proposal, as it is salable in Russia's domestic context. They are also areas in which Japan’s private sector is interested in investing and helping design and develop.