Northern Territories / Kuril Islands
The Kuril islands lie just north of Japan's main northern island, Hokkaido. The 1,300-kilometer-long archipelago has been under Moscow's control since Soviet troops seized it in the closing days of World War Two. Japan claims the four southernmost islands as its own. The matter has remained unresolved since 1945, so the two countries have yet to sign a peace treaty to formally end the war, which prevents closer political and economic ties between the neighbors.
Strains in the Tokyo-Moscow relationship have deep historical roots, going back to the competition of the Japanese and Russian empires for dominance in Northeast Asia. This longstanding antipathy stems from the Russo-Japanese rivalry in Korea, Manchuria, and China proper in the late nineteenth century, from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5; and from the Soviet declaration of war on Japan in the last days of World War II, in violation of the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact of 1941.
In 2012, two-thirds of a century after the end of World War II, a state of war between Japan and Russia existed technically because the government in Moscow had refused in the intervening years to sign the 1951 peace treaty. The main stumbling block in all Japan's subsequent efforts to establish bilateral relations on what it called "a truly stable basis" was the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories.
The Kremlin considers the Northern Territories to be the price Japan paid for what the Russians believe was Tokyo's treachery in backing Hitler ) and partial compensation for the millions of lives Moscow lost to Berlin during the war. Japan lacks a plan to negotiate the return of the Northern Territories. On 08 March 2008, Russian Embassy First Secretary Yuri Yuriev rejected, using the strongest language to date, any possibility of change in Moscow's views on the Northern Territories. According to Yuriev, the situation regarding the Northern Territories is "the result of Japan's fiasco during World War II," and represents "a payment for its aggressive military policy and the alliance with Hitler's Germany." He continued that "no Russian leader who wants to continue in his job until the new election would ever think about returning the islands to Japan." The status quo would continue until Japan altered its "principled position" demanding the return of the four islands.
Most Japanese academic debate about the Northern Territories is mired in tired, decades-old debates about the nuance that exists between the 1956 and 1993 declarations ) "angels on the head of a pin"-type arguments which have no practical application to finding a solution to the Northern Territories problem today. Japan has emphasized to the Russians that they would not be subjected to dispossession or any type of mistreatment if the islands were to revert to Japanese control. Japan's ultimate goal is to have both Japanese and Russian residents living together under Japanese authority. With the average age of the 8,076 remaining Japanese residents of the islands nearing 73 [as of 2007], many people fear that the momentum behind the campaign for the reversion of the Northern Territories will decline.
There has long been strong opposition in Japan to Moscow's refusal to accede to Japan's claims to the Northern Territories, known to the Japanese as Etorofu and Kunashiri, at the southern end of the Kuril Island chain, and the smaller island of Shikotan and the Habomai Islands, northeast of Hokkaido, which were seized by the Soviets in the last days of World War II. The stationing of Soviet military forces on the islands gave tangible proof of the Soviet threat, and provocative maneuvers by Soviet air and naval forces in Japanese- claimed territory served to reinforce Japanese official policy of close identification with a firm United States-backed posture against Soviet power. In 1979 the Japanese government specifically protested a build up in Soviet forces in Etorofu, Kunashiri, and Shikotan.
During the first half of the 1950s, other unsettled problems included Japanese fishing rights in the Sea of Okhotsk and off the coast of the Soviet maritime provinces and repatriation of Japanese prisoners of war, who were still being held in the Soviet Union. Negotiation of these issues broke down early in 1956 because of tension over territorial claims. Negotiations soon resumed, however, and the two countries issued a joint declaration in October 1956 providing for the restoration of diplomatic relations. The two parties also agreed to continue negotiations for a peace treaty, including territorial issues.
The Soviet Union sought to induce Japan to abandon its territorial claims by alternating threats and persuasion. As early as 1956, it hinted at the possibility of considering the return of the Habomai Islands and Shikotan if Japan abandoned its alliance with the United States. In 1960 the Soviet government warned Japan against signing the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States, and after the treaty was signed, declared that it would not hand over the Habomai Islands and Shikotan under any circumstances unless Japan abrogated the treaty forthwith. In 1964 the Soviet Union offered to return these islands unconditionally if the United States ended its military presence on Okinawa and the main islands of Japan. Despite divergence on the territorial question, on which neither side was prepared to give ground, Japan's relations with the Soviet Union improved appreciably after the mid-1960s.
Japanese-Soviet political relations during the 1970s were characterized by the frequent exchange of high-level visits to explore the possibility of improving bilateral relations and by repeated discussions of a peace treaty, which were abortive because neither side was prepared to yield on the territorial issue. Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko of the Soviet Union visited Tokyo in January 1976 to resume talks on the peace treaty. When the Japanese again refused to budge on the territorial question, Gromyko, according to the Japanese, offered to return two of the Soviet-held island areas--the Habomai Islands and Shikotan--if Japan would sign a treaty of goodwill and cooperation.
The advent of the Mikhail Gorbachev regime in Moscow in 1985 saw a replacement of hard-line Soviet government diplomats who were expert in Asian affairs with more flexible spokespersons calling for greater contact with Japan. Gorbachev took the lead in promising new initiatives in Asia, but the substance of Soviet policy changed more slowly. In particular, throughout the rest of the 1980s, Soviet officials still seemed uncompromising regarding the Northern Territories. The Japanese government stated that it would not conduct normal relations with the Soviet Union until Moscow returned the Northern Territories. The government and Japanese business leaders stated further that Japanese trade with and investment in the Soviet Union would not grow appreciably until the Northern Territories issue had been resolved.
By 1990 the Soviet government had altered its tactics. The Soviet Union now acknowledged that the territorial issue was a problem and talked about it with Japanese officials at the highest levels and in working-level meetings. Soviet officials reportedly floated a proposal to lease the Northern Territories and part of Sakhalin--once a colonial holding of Japan's--to Japan. Gorbachev and others also referred to a 1956 Soviet offer to return one of the three main islands (Shikotan, the smallest of the three) and the Habomai Islands, and there were indications that Moscow might be prepared to revive the offer. The Soviet Union emphasized that it would not return all the islands because of Soviet public opposition and the possible reawakening of other countries' territorial claims against the Soviet Union. The Soviet military reportedly opposed a return because the Kuril Islands provided a protective barrier to the Sea of Okhotsk, where the Soviet navy deployed submarines carrying long-range ballistic missiles.
The government of Boris Yeltsin took power in Russia in late 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved. Once again, Moscow took a stand in firm opposition to returning the disputed territories to Japan. Although Japan joined with the Group of Seven industrialized nations in providing some technical and financial assistance to Russia, relations between Japan and Russia remained cool. In September 1992, Russian president Boris Yeltsin postponed a scheduled visit to Japan. The visit finally took place in October 1993. During the visit, although various substantive issues, including the Northern Territories and the signing of a peace treaty, were discussed, no significant improvement was seen in Japan-Russia relations.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Japan initiated a humanitarian assistance program to provide basic needs to the islands' residents. After a devastating earthquake subsequently rocked the islands and eastern Hokkaido, Japan responded by increasing humanitarian assistance through the construction of new schools and a new electric generation plant on the affected islands.
In 1977 Japan became bound by a 200-mile EEZ that limits its access to the plentiful crab, salmon and seaweed (konbu) found in the Northern Territories' waters. Each year Japan pays Russia 122 million yen (USD 1.1 million) for the rights to harvest seaweed from Kaigara Island in the Habomai Group of islets. The season runs from June 1 until the end of September, with June and July comprising the peak harvest period.
A poll conducted by the Hokkaido Shimbun in November 2005 that interviewed residents from three of the islands (the fourth is uninhabited) regarding the possible return of the islands to Japanese authority. Eighty percent of Etorofu residents and 63 percent of Kunashiri residents were opposed, but more than 50 percent of Shikotan residents were in favor. Russia offered to return Shikotan and the uninhabited islet group of Habomai in the 1956 Japan-U.S.S.R. Joint Declaration and has referred to this document in subsequent negotiations. Shikotan has more exposure to Japanese former islanders since it was first to participate in the visa-free exchanges.
At PM Shinzo Abe's 07 June 2007 meeting with Russian President Putin on the margins of the G-8 Summit, the two leaders agreed that they would not shelve the Northern Territories issue. Putin said he was ready to talk, wanted to remove any obstacles to settlement, and hoped to avoid stagnation in the discussions.
Meeting in Sydney on 07 September 2007, former Prime Minister Abe and President Putin discussed four main topics, according to Otsuki and former Russia Division Principal Deputy Director Kazuhiko Nakamura: 1) Northern Territories, 2) Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia Cooperation, 3) climate change, and 4) youth exchanges. On the Northern Territories, the two leaders stressed the importance of making progress on negotiating a settlement. Abe and Putin instructed their staffs to take steps to resolve the status of the four islands, but presented no new ideas for resolving the land dispute and provided no specific guidance about how to proceed.
Japan PM Aso expressed concern with the pace of working-level discussions on the Northern Territories during talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the margins of the 22-23 November 2008 APEC Summit in Lima, Peru. Medvedev said a solution would require strong political will by leaders on both sides, and he promised not to delay resolution until the "next generation." MOFA officials feel confident about Medvedev's commitment to resolve the issue, but claim lower-level officials are not adequately informing the President.
Japan rivals China as the leading Asian investor in Russia. The 18 February 2009 start of liquified natural gas shipments between Japan and Russia - energy supplies which Japan desperately needed much more than it needed an immediate resolution of the Northern Territories issue - basically ensured that neither side will risk disrupting the Japan-Russia relationship.
In 2009 Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian President to visit the island group, home to 19,000 Russians who live largely off fishing. In February 2010, his defense minister visited the largest island. Japanís prime minister Naoto Kan called the Russian visits an unforgivable outrage. Japanese rightists protested in Tokyo, trampling a Russian flag and mailing a bullet to the Russian Embassy. On 10 February 2010 apan and Russiaís top diplomats traded undiplomatic language Friday over a 65-year-old standoff over disputed Islands. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Japanís position radical, adding that dialogue has "no chance." Seated next to the Russian diplomat at a press conference in Moscow Friday, Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara responded icily: "The Northern Territories are age-old Japanese territory."
Documents which have been agreed to so far include the 1956 Joint Declaration, 1993 Tokyo Declaration, 2001 Irkutsk Statement, 2003 Action Plan. The March 2001 Irkutsk Statement and the January 2003 Japan-Russia Action Plan both called for the two countries to promote economic exchanges while strengthening efforts to resolve the territorial issue. Domestic concerns in Tokyo and Moscow will block any new initiative on the Northern Territories issue.
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