Russia In Japan?

Shinzō Abe and Vladimir Putin / On Wikimedia Commons by Барвенковский

The threat of North Korea? A China-American trade War? South Korean-Japanese diplomatic tensions? East Asian diplomatic issues seem to be reaching a high point. 

The Kuril islands dispute is an ongoing diplomatic disagreement between Japan and Russia over the sovereignty of the four southernmost Kuril Islands, which have been under Russian control since World War 2.  

The Kuril Islands are a chain of islands that stretch across the east side of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. There are 56 islands and many minor rocks making up the total land area of 10,503.2 square kilometres, with the total population of approx. 20 thousands Russian citizens. The islands are rich in untouched nature such as hot springs, as well as minerals and rare metals.

Current Russian control of the islands ensures that Russia has year-round access to the Pacific Ocean for its Pacific Fleet of warships and submarines based in Vladivostok, as well as deployed missile systems on the islands. The disputed issue over these islands has been ongoing for more than half a decade. 

How did all this happen? 

Back in the 1940s at the end of World War II., the islands were annexed by the Soviet Union following the Kuril Islands landing operation. In August to September 1945, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied the Kuril islands, and in January 1946, under SCAPIN-677 (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Instruction Note) the Japanese administration over the islands was temporarily stopped putting the Kuril islands were officially put under administrative jurisdiction of Soviet Union. This caused About 17 thousand Japanese citizens being locked out in the Kuril islands, and after three years of occupation in 1949, all the people were forced to move out of their home islands.

Today Russia maintains the Soviet Union’s sovereignty over the islands which was recognized in post-war agreements. Japan and the Soviet Union ended their formal state of war with the Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, but did not resolve the territorial dispute. 

Treaty of peace with Japan / On Wikimedia Commons by FlickreviewR

Deception in the Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956

During talks leading to the joint declaration, the Soviet Union offered Japan the two smaller islands of Shikotan and the Habomai in exchange for Japan renouncing all claims to the two bigger islands of Iturup and Kunashir, but Japan refused the offer after pressure from the US. Japan and the Soviet Union ended their formal state of war with the Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, but did not resolve the territorial dispute. 

Pressure from the U.S.?

The U.S. government intervened and blocked the deal. The U.S. warned Japan that a withdrawal of the Japanese claim on the other islands would mean the U.S. would keep Okinawa, leveraging its occupation power over Japan. 

The modern dispute: How do the two parties respond to the situation today?

Today both parties still remain fixed in not changing their position. Japan claims that “the Soviet Union’s 1945 entry into the war against Japan was a violation of the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact, and the occupation of the islands was therefore a violation of international law. Given this fact, the northern territory has never been the land of foreign country and therefore belongs to Japan, the illegal occupation by Soviet Union still remains up to date”.

The current Cabinet office of Japan also puts this dispute on one of the most urgent national issues. 

On the other hand, Russia claims the explicit language of the Yalta Agreement gave the Soviet Union a right to the Kurils, and the Soviet Union upheld its own obligations under that treaty. Russia inherited possession of the islands from the former Soviet Union, as its successor state, in accordance with international law.

Response from the international societies

The European Parliament’s resolution of 7 July 2005 on ‘relations between the EU, China and Taiwan and security in the Far East’ called for ‘the return to Japan of the “Northern territories” that were occupied by the then Soviet Union at the end of World War II and are currently occupied by Russia. This will keep Russia from gaining a valuable partner to build up its underdeveloped eastern provinces and Japan gaining a new ally that will improve its security in Asia.

Likewise the EU’s concern for solving the dispute over the islands requires addressing economic, political, and strategic affairs due to the long-lasting economic ties between Japan and Russia in East Asia region. However, even the qualitative improvement of relations between Russia and Japan in these areas requires resolving the island problem.

Cooperation among the neighboring countries

During the 2018 East Asia Summit in Singapore, Shinzo Abe, PM of Japan stated that both leaders would seek a peace treaty to the terms of the 1956 Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration under consensus and cooperation among other national leaders in the summit.

Shinzō Abe visits Russia / On Wikimedia Commons by Mondfeuer61

A solution in progress? Russia stepping closer to Japan

Russian negotiators won’t give up on an island, instead, they may give a free-step in. This step took the form of Russian introduced visa-free trips for Japanese citizens to the Kuril Islands. Japan’s fishermen are also allowed to catch fish in Russia’s exclusive economic zone, given the incident in 2006 when Japanese fishermen were fired upon for allegedly fishing illegally in Russian waters. A Japanese fisherman was shot dead by a Russian patrol in this incident. 

Moreover, in another negotiating step Russia allowed is that in 2018 former Japanese residents began a tour to visit family graves on the Smaller Kuril Archipelago group of islets. The long lasting Russian-Japanese island dispute still remains as a scar from the Second World War and the postwar period of American-Russian tension. Will Russia have to lose their territory to Japan or will Japan get their stolen territory back? Only time will tell. 

Ayumi Hara