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Personal Element to Japan Premier's Russia Trip

Diplomacy: Yoshiro Mori's bid to boost ties upholds wishes of father, whose remains are buried in both nations.

April 28, 2000|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — When new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori arrives in Russia today for the first leg of a whirlwind trip to meet world leaders, he'll be returning to the nation where half his father's ashes are buried.

Shigeki Mori, mayor for decades of a small city in Japan, loved Russia so much he requested that his remains be split between the two countries so the ties he had established would never be forgotten.

Given the heavy political suspicions that arose in Japan from associating with Communist Russia, his love of the country was highly unusual, born of a friendship with a fellow World War II veteran--and former enemy.

The peaceful ties he forged could give a boost to the younger Mori's goal of improving relations with Russia and upholding the last wishes of his father, who died in 1989. But the trip comes just a week after the Russians fired on and seized a Japanese fishing vessel.

"Since his father's grave is in Russia, the Russian president-elect [Vladimir V. Putin] will welcome him with a warm heart," asserted Sotonobu Matsuyama, a close friend of the Mori family and vice chairman of the Japan-Russia Friendship Assn. in Neagari, the Mori family's roost on the Sea of Japan. "I sense it because Putin is inviting Mori to his hometown of St. Petersburg [rather than Moscow], and I'm sure they will talk about his father."

Not only have Russia and Japan faced off on the battlefield, but throughout the 20th century, each has felt that the other has taken away its rightful territory: They still haven't officially signed a peace treaty ending World War II, for example, because of a dispute over the southern Kuril Islands not far from where the fishing boat was seized last week.

Both have downplayed the boat's capture, although Russia is still holding the vessel and 20 fishermen on one of the disputed islands.

The summit with Putin will be the first in Mori's week of get-to-know-you sessions with leaders in seven countries, including Italy, Germany, France, Britain, Canada and the U.S. He meets with President Clinton next Friday for about an hour.

Mori, who took office April 5 after his predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, was incapacitated by a stroke, is making the rounds in advance of a summit of the world's leading industrialized nations on Japan's southern island of Okinawa in July.

Mori's globe-trotting trip could be premature, because it isn't a sure thing that he will still be in office by the time the summit rolls around. His tenure as prime minister could depend on how his ruling Liberal Democratic Party fares in parliamentary elections expected to be held in late June.

Mori isn't wasting any time when it comes to diplomacy, however, and Russia gets the most time on his dance card this trip. Arriving tonight and staying through the weekend, he'll attend a state luncheon and concert at the magnificent Hermitage Museum and take a riverside stroll with Putin, as well as visit a joint venture between Japan's Sony Corp. and a Russian electronics maker.

Mori has visited Russia five or six times, his spokesman said, including two visits to his father's large granite grave--which bears a large color photo and his name in Japanese characters--in the Siberian city of Shelekhov. His remains include the bullet fragments that were lodged near his lungs when he was shot by the Chinese army in Manchuria in 1938. The elder Mori later commanded an Imperial Army unit in the Truk Islands in the South Pacific during World War II.

Shigeki Mori's ties with Siberia began sometime before his first visit to Russia in 1960. As mayor of Neagari, he met a fellow World War II veteran--who fought for Russia--at a conference of Japanese and Russian cities.

The Russian was the mayor of the Siberian city of Irkutsk, and he would later introduce Mori to nearby Shelekhov.

The friendship grew out of what one of the elder Mori's friends describes as "graveyard diplomacy." Both men, who as battle commanders had seen many of their soldiers killed in action, were concerned about the care of the fallen men's graves. The Russian arranged to have the names of Japanese soldiers buried in Khabarovsk, in Russia's Far East, put on their graves, which previously had only been marked by prisoner-of-war numbers. Shigeki Mori arranged to clean up an unsightly cemetery for Russian soldiers on Japan's western coast.

The elder Mori and his Russian counterpart went on to found a thriving bilateral friendship society that promotes not only annual visitation programs between the two cities for junior high students but also sports, cultural, music and university exchanges.

Shigeki Mori visited Shelekhov, near Lake Baikal, more than 15 times during his 35 years as mayor of Neagari, a textile city less than one-third the size of Shelekhov, a city of 50,000. And when Russians visited Neagari, he personally escorted them everywhere.

Shelekhov awarded him honorary citizenship and made him an honorary worker at its aluminum plant.

The friendship didn't always help Mori at home, however. A book about his life notes that the Japanese secret police constantly monitored his whereabouts because of his suspected Communist ties. The biography quoted his son as saying that, whenever the family wanted to know Mori's whereabouts, his mother would say, "Just ask the police."

But the organization was never political, Shigeki Mori's friend Fujio Miyamoto said, and had no ties with the Communist Party in Japan. "Mori believed that if children of both generations became friends, they would never allow their countries to get into a war," Miyamoto said.

Shelekhov schoolchildren still visit Shigeki's grave each Nov. 19, the anniversary of his death. "The kids in Shelekhov," his friend Matsuyama said, "know his name better than the kids in Japan."

Chiaki Kitada of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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