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Japan-Russia Relations

Russia announced on 21 Marach 2022 that it was abandoning the discussions aimed at signing a formal World War II peace deal due to Tokyo’s moves to impose sanctions over Moscow’s military action in Ukraine. Russia and Japan had still not formally ended World War II hostilities because of a standoff over the islands known in Russia as the Kurils and in Japan as the Northern Territories. “The latest situation occurred as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and Russia’s attempt to shift the issue to Japan-Russia relations is extremely unjustified and absolutely unacceptable,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in parliament.

Tokyo's imposition of sanctions on Russia in March 2022 was almost certainly the final nail in the coffin of Japan's ambition to resume control of the disputed Kuril Islands. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had been swift to follow in the footsteps of the vast majority of the international community in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, imposing restrictions on the Russian central bank and supporting Moscow's removal from the SWIFT international banking system. Analysts point out that his moves are more decisive and effective than previous measures taken against the regime of Vladimir Putin.

The last time that Japan was called upon to enforce sanction on Moscow was in 2014, when Russian troops forcibly occupied Ukraine's Crimea region. Tokyo's response to that earlier land grab was lukewarm because the then-Japanese government of Shinzo Abe wanted to avoid antagonizing Putin as talks were ongoing over the future of a chain of islands off northern Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to host to the Russian President, even at the risk of violating sanctions against Moscow, showed Tokyo's strategic weakness and desperation to improve ties with Russia.

While Abe believed in 2014 that there was still a hint of a chance that the islands might be handed over or that an agreement on joint economic development might be possible, Kishida now harbors no such illusions. Announcing the sanctions on Sunday, Kishida said, "The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force and shakes the very foundations of the international order. It is a clear violation of international law which cannot be tolerated, and which we severely condemn."

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan on 15-16 December 2016 did not resolve the territorial problem between Moscow and Tokyo, but it did improve bilateral relations. On 15 December 2016 Putin and Abe discussed the preparation for negotiations on the peace treaty in a one-to-one format. Japan and Russia never signed a permanent peace treaty after World War II due to a disagreement over four islands, which Russia calls the Southern Kurils and Japan the Northern Territories, encompassing Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to restore frozen military contacts, as well as contacts in the 2+2 format, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. "Today, it has been agreed that it is necessary to restore other mechanisms of our bilateral dialogue, which had been frozen in recent years. I mean military contacts and 2+2 format talks," the Russian foreign minister said, commenting talks between Putin and Abe.

Despite special relatons between Japan and the US, Moscow and Tokyo are interested in "close cooperation" in the region, Lavrov said. "Despite special relations between Japan and the US based on their military-political alliance since 1960 year, Russia and Japan are interested to closely cooperate in formats which exist in the Asia-Pacific region to solve security issues."

According to Lavrov, Putin and Abe discussed the issues of air defense and US presence in the Asia Pacific region, as well as North Korea's threats. He said that US' boosting of military presence in the Asia-Pacific region is "disproportional" to the threat posed by Pyongyang's nuclear program. The US uses the alleged North Korea's threat "as a pretext to boost modern arms here [in the Asia Pacific region]", Lavrov said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an avid judoist, on 05 September 2013 agreed with Japan’s prime minister that a post-World War II peace deal between the two states could finally be reached only under the judo principle of hikiwake – “no winner, no loser.” The two states have never signed a permanent peace treaty after World War II because of a long-running territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands in the north Pacific, occupied by Soviet forces at the end of the war and still claimed by Japan. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had made the judo-style agreement on the sidelines of the G20 summit near St. Petersburg.

In 2013, 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.

Japan's policy toward Russia is delineated by two agreements. The Japan-Russia Action Plan, the culmination of then-President Putin's 2000 Tokyo visit and former FM Koizumi's 2003 trip to Moscow, outlines a series of agreed upon future actions in the fields of political dialogue, advancing peace treaty negotiations, international cooperation, trade and economic assistance, defense and security arrangements, and cultural exchanges. A second document, titled "Initiative for Strengthening Japan-Russia Cooperation in the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia," which former PM Shinzo Abe proposed on the margins of the 2007 Heiligendamm G-8 Summit, called for private and public sector cooperation in the fields of energy, transportation, information and communication, environment, security, health and medicine, trade and investment, and cultural/tourism exchanges.

Tokyo and Moscow have achieved limited success in meeting the goals set forth in both documents, including negotiations on an agreement on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. However, with neither side willing or able to achieve a significant breakthrough on the Northern Territories issue, bilateral summits invariable conclude with vapidly-worded joint statemnets noting Tokyo and Moscow have agreed to "accelerate" negotiations or to "raise talks to a higher level" - boilerplate language designed to appease constituencies in both countries.

Muneo Suzuki, an influential Diet member who also served as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary to former PM Keizo Obuchi, reportedly played a key behind-the-scenes role in pressuring the Foreign Ministry to modify Japan's policy toward Russia. In 2002, police arrested Suzuki for accepting bribes from two Hokkaido companies which held construction contracts in Russia - a crime for which he was later convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.

Japan and Russia are important neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region. Building appropriate relations as partners in this region facing drastic changes, and deepening cooperation and ties in all fields including politics, economy, culture, and the international arena are not only in the strategic interests of both countries, but also can contribute to regional stability and prosperity. From this perspective, Japan and Russia conducted dialogues at diverse levels throughout 2010, including three summit meetings and two foreign ministers’ meetings.

Russia is pursuing development in the Far East and Eastern Siberia, with an aim to integrating itself with the Asia-Pacific region. Russia is also advancing a policy of economic “modernization,” and it has shown certain expectations of an interest in cooperation with Japan. However, an extremely regrettable incident occurred in November 2010: President Medvedev visited Kunashiri Island in the Northern Territories the first head of state of Russia or the Soviet Union. Russia has also been putting energy into social and economic development programs in the Northern Territories.

Amid these developments, Japan’s has been conducting a consistent policy toward Russia to conclude a peace treaty by resolving the outstanding. At the same time, it is also important that negotiations bring about win-win negotiations for both Japan and Russia. From that perspective, Japan will continue to work towards the resolution of the territorial issue based on the agreements and documents produced by agreement of both countries and on the principles of law and justice. Japan will also make efforts to develop relations with Russia in all fields, including economic areas.

Strains in Japan-Soviet Union relations had deep historical roots, going back to the competition of the Japanese and Russian empires for dominance in Northeast Asia. Diplomatic relations between Japan and Russia were initiated in 1854 with the arrival in the port of Shimoda of Admiral Putyatin of the Russian Imperial Navy on the Diana, which led to the signing of the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation between Japan and Russia in the following year of 1855. The treaty was signed by Admiral Putyatin from the Russian side and Inspector General Masanori Tsutsui and Controller Toshiakira Kawaji from the Japanese side. The treaty was signed based on mutual trust and understanding between the representatives of both countries in spite of such great difficulties as an earthquake and tsunami.

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. In addition, the Soviet Union pledged to support Japan for UN membership and waive all World War II reparations claims. The joint declaration was accompanied by a trade protocol that granted reciprocal most-favored-nation treatment and provided for the development of trade.

Japan derived few apparent gains from the normalization of diplomatic relations. The second half of the 1950s saw an increase in cultural exchanges. Soviet propaganda, however, had little success in Japan, where it encountered a longstanding antipathy stemming 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.

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. The Soviet government began to seek Japanese cooperation in its economic development plans, and the Japanese responded positively. The two countries signed a five-year trade agreement in January 1966 and a civil aviation agreement as well.

Economic cooperation expanded rapidly during the 1970s, despite an often strained political relationship. The two economies were complementary, for the Soviet Union needed Japan's capital, technology, and consumer goods, while Japan needed Soviet natural resources, such as oil, gas, coal, iron ore, and timber. By 1979 overall trade had reached US$4.4 billion annually and had made Japan, after the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), the Soviet Union's most important nonsocialist trading partner.

This economic cooperation was interrupted by Japan's decision in 1980 to participate in sanctions against the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan and by its actions to hold in obeyance a number of projects being negotiated, to ban the export of some high-technology items, and to suspend Siberian development loans. Subsequently, Japanese interest in economic cooperation with the Soviet Union waned as Tokyo found alternative suppliers and remained uncertain about the economic viability and political stability of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Japan-Soviet trade in 1988 was valued at nearly US$6 billion.

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 1972--one month before United States president Nixon's historic visit to China--to reopen ministerial-level talks after a six-year lapse. Other high-level talks, including an October 1973 meeting between Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei and Leonid I. Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, were held in Moscow during the next three years, but the deadlock on the territorial issue continued, and prospects for a settlement dimmed. Moscow began to propose a treaty of friendship and goodwill as an interim step while peace treaty talks were continued. This proposal was firmly rejected by Japan.

After 1975 the Soviet Union began openly to warn that the Japanese peace treaty with China might jeopardize Soviet-Japan relations. In January 1976, Gromyko again visited Tokyo 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. He also reportedly warned the Japanese, in an obvious reference to China, against "forces which come out against the relaxation of tension and which try to complicate relations between states, including our countries."

The signing of the Sino-Japanese peace treaty in mid-1978 was a major setback to Japanese-Soviet relations. Despite Japanese protestations that the treaty's antihegemony clause was not directed against any specific country, Moscow saw it as placing Tokyo with Washington and Beijing firmly in the anti-Soviet camp. Officially, both sides continued to express the desire for better relations, but Soviet actions served only to alarm and alienate the Japanese side. The 1980s Soviet military buildup in the Pacific was a case in point.

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, Soviet forces in the western Pacific still seemed focused on and threatening to Japan, and Soviet economic troubles and lack of foreign exchange made prospects for Japan-Soviet Union economic relations appear poor. By 1990 Japan appeared to be the least enthusiastic of the major Western-aligned developed countries in encouraging greater contacts with and assistance to the Soviet Union.

Changes in Soviet policy carried out under Gorbachev beginning in the mid-1980s, including attempts at domestic reform and the pursuit of détente with the United States and Western Europe, elicited generally positive Japanese interest, but the Japanese government held that the Soviet Union had not changed its policies on issues vital to Japan. The 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 has 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 Soviet government also stepped up its diplomacy toward Japan with the announcement in 1990 that Gorbachev would visit Japan in 1991. Soviet officials asserted that their government would propose disarmament talks with Japan and might make more proposals on the Northern Territories in connection with the visit. Observers believed that Gorbachev might propose a package dealing with the islands, arms reduction, and economic cooperation. In January 1990, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs shifted its position, which previously had rejected negotiations with the Soviet Union on arms reductions, indicating that Japan would be willing to negotiate. Ministry officials stated that the government would formulate policy on arms reduction in close coordination with the United States.

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.

On Monday, 18 June 2012, Mr. Yoshihiko Noda, the Prime Minister of Japan, on a visit to Los Cabos, Mexico to attend the G20 Summit Meeting, held a Japan-Russia Summit Meeting with Mr. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the President of the Russian Federation. The two leaders shared the views that the strategic environment in this region is greatly changing and agreed to strengthen efforts being made by Japan and Russia, with a view to contributing to the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. The two leaders confirmed, in particular, the importance of promoting cooperation in the field of security and defense as well as cooperation on the sea. The two leaders agreed on reactivating negotiations concerning the territorial issue, and instructing their respective foreign ministries to carry forward substantial discussions in a calm environment. Then, the two leaders agreed to coordinate Minister Gemba’s visit to Moscow as early as this summer to discuss the progress of bilateral relations in a wide range of fields, including the territorial issue.

Russia and Japan began preparations for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2016 visit to a Russian region with deputy foreign minister-level talks in February 2016, NHK news reported on 30 December 2015. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov and his Japanese counterpart Shinsuke Sugiyama will discuss Abe’s visit at a meeting in Moscow in February, according to the report. Abe had not decided which Russian region to visit, according to media reports from Russia and Japan. Analysts are optimistic that Abe’s visit will pave the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Japan. In 2015, Putin’s trip to Japan was put off indefinitely after the two countries failed to make progress in resolving the Southern Kuril Island territorial dispute.

In his first news conference of 2016, on 04 January 2016, Abe said that a summit with President Vladimir Putin must take place for the two countries to forge a peace treaty, which Japan and Russia still haven’t signed for World War II. He said the government will continue to seek “the most appropriate timing” for a meeting with Putin in Japan.

On 27 April 2017 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to Moscow four years after his first spearheading visit and had the most ‘business as usual’ of bilateral summits with President Vladimir Putin to date. The leaders of Japan and Russia met in the Kremlin for their 17th bilateral meeting since April 2013. Stressing the number of meetings had become a regular feature of media reports and perhaps hinted at the fact that the attempted normalization was still a process in the making.

On September 12, 2018 Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed signing a World War II peace treaty with Japan by the end of the year "without preconditions." Putin made the surprise offer in public, sitting next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a stage at an economic forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok. After Abe pressed Putin on the subject of a treaty and a solution to the decades-long dispute over a group of islands claimed by both countries, Putin said: "An idea has just come into my head."

"Shinzo said, 'Let's change our approaches.' Let's! Let's conclude a peace agreement -- not now but by the end of the year, without any preconditions," Putin said. He said issues that are in dispute could be resolved later, and that the pact could specify that the sides are determined to reach mutually acceptable agreements.

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Page last modified: 22-03-2022 10:52:10 ZULU