Author: Jan Barta


     Politicians and specialists claim that economic and political relationships between Japan and Russia keep developing, but nevertheless these relations are still burdened by a non-ratified peace pact and by the Kuril Islands issue. Many hoped for solution of this foreign policy chapter till the end of the 20th century. Unfortunately it did not happen, and the dispute over islands still dominates the bilateral relations of two important countries, one being economic, the other one ideological leader on this continent.
     Kuril Islands (Tshishima retto) are formed by a chain of 30 large islands and several smaller islands that are situated between Kamchatka and Hokkaido Island. Russia and Japan are in dispute over four islands, or actually over three islands and a group of smaller islands: Iturup/Etorofu, Kunashir/Kunashiri, Shikotan and a group of small islands Shibocu, Taraku, Akijuri, Suisho and Juri that are jointly presented as a Habomai Island. Russia calls these four above mentioned islands Southern Kuriles, Japanese refer to them as to Northern Territories. Even geologists have differing opinion about the islands. Russian specialists claim that islands are part of Kamchatka range, Japanese are convinced that islands are situated on the range of Japanese Hokkaido Island.
     There were no doubts about the status of islands till WWII, with the exception of more or less academic discussions over the original inhabitants and process of settlement on islands. All Russian - Japanese treaties confirmed that islands belonged to Japan. Problem concerning this territory appeared only after WWII. In spite of announcement of immediate capitulation by the Japanese government on August 14, 1945, the Soviet Army continued its offensive with the aim to capture Sakhalin and Kuril Islands. These islands were taken over in the period from August 28 to September 5, 1945, which means after the termination of WWII. Position of Japanese party naturally points this fact out, and refuses to accept activities of Soviet Army after the August 14 as legal. Russia arguments that these particular military events were launched before capitulation of Japan. In February 1946, Soviet Union retroactively (effective as of September 1945) incorporated Kuril Islands by a Decree of Presidium of the Supreme Soviet into the Khabarovsk region of the RSFSR.
     When negotiating about status of Southern Kuril, Russia refers to results of Yalta Agreement of 1945. Soviet Union preconditioned its participation in war against Japan, besides other things, by transfer of Kuril Islands and southern part of Sakhalin to its territories. Majority of discussions are concerned with legal aspects of this act, and questions are raised whether it was not only a political act with questionable support in international law. Japanese diplomats keep pointing out the fact that Japan and Russia signed a Neutrality Pact in 1941. The treaty stated both parties' obligations to respect mutually their territorial sovereignty and neutrality for the period of five years. This treaty was to be extended for another period of five years, unless one of both parties denounced the treaty before its termination. The treaty also confirmed validity of the 1905 Portsmouth Peace Treaty, in which Russia handed over to Japan not only complete Kuril Islands, but also the southern part of Sakhalin.1
     San Francisco hosted an international conference in 1951, where Japanese representatives met with representatives of the U.S. and other countries of anti-fascist coalition. The treaty signed at the end of this conference states that Japan "waives all its rights, legal claims and demands of Kuril Islands."2 Even interpretation of this treaty does not provide sufficient arguments to solve current situation. In Japanese opinion, there are no geographical data in the treaty according to which "northern territories" could be associated with Kuril Islands. What's more, Soviet Union did not sign this treaty and explained that it considers the treaty a separate agreement between the U.S. and Japanese governments. Mutual relationship of Japan and Russia should have been thus solved with a bilateral treaty. Such treaty was signed after restoration of Japan's state sovereignty in 1952, and in fact it is the only agreement that normalizes in a complex way bilateral relations between both countries. A Japan –Soviet Joint Declaration was concluded on October 19, 1956 in Moscow, and on December 12, 1956 the documents ratified by both countries' parliaments were exchanged in Tokyo. Besides termination of the state of war and resumption of diplomatic relations, the USSR agreed in Article 9 with Japanese demands to return islands Habomai and Shikotan back to Japan with the condition that "the actual transfer of islands would be realized after conclusion of a peace treaty between the USSR and Japan."3 Russian representatives do not deny legal obligatory character of this declaration. Already in 1993 did President Boris Yeltsin approve validity of the treaty, and for example the so-called "Irkutsk Statement" of President Putin and Prime Minister Mori confirmed that the "Joint Declaration of the USSR and Japan from 1956 represented fundamental legal document for the starting phase of negotiations leading towards peace treaty conclusion."4
     Soviet Union withdrew already in 1960 from its covenant to hand over those two islands after signing of a peace treaty, and explained its position by claiming that Japan concluded security treaties with the U.S. according to which Japan de facto viewed the USSR as a potential enemy. Approach of Soviet diplomacy that followed was presented by statements that there are actually no territorial problems with Japan at all. A joint Soviet - Japanese statement from October 10, 1973, issued at a meeting of supreme representatives of both countries in Moscow, noted that "conclusion of unsolved issues remaining from the end of WWII and conclusion of peace treaty would benefit creation of really good neighboring and friendly relations between both parties."5 Towards the end of 80's, Mikhail Gorbatchev admitted existence of a territorial dispute between the USSR and Japan, but he also added that the obligation to hand over the two mentioned islands already lost its legal power.
     Soviet diplomacy was gradually forced to admit existence of a territorial dispute. A joint Soviet - Japanese statement from April 18, 1991, issued at a supreme level meeting in Tokyo, remarked that both parties "led negotiations about a whole complex of issues regarding preparation and conclusion of a peace treaty between the USSR and Japan, including territorial determination and status of islands Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup."6
     Japanese position regarding the Northern Territories has been clear for many years. Majority of Japanese population thinks that Russia's rule over these islands is illegal, and it requires conclusion of such peace treaty that would meet Japanese territorial demands in its full extent, e.g. it hopes in return of four disputed islands. 40% of the overall population of Japan signed petition for return of Northern Territories between years 1965 to 1990. Opinion of individual persons varies only by the degree of "understanding" of Russian arguments. Japanese professor of international relations, Kazuo Takahashi, for example said: "We had a chance /to have the islands returned - author's comment/ when there was Gorbatchev at a power. But Russians live there. That's what reality is like. We have to reconcile with the reality, but not with the juridical protection of this occupation."7
     Standpoint of Russian party is not so unanimous. Opinion ranges from demand to hand these islands back to Japan to a categorical rejection of such act. Attitude of Russian diplomacy towards the issue of disputed islands can be found in documents of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A letter of the ministry addressed to a Sakhalin regional duma states that Russian position for negotiations about peace treaty is based on the fact that "the islands were taken away from Japan, an aggressor state, on the basis of WWII results, and were transferred to Soviet Union on a legal basis." This legal basis "was founded during Yalta meeting, and took a form of Postdam Treaty."8 Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yevgeny Primakov, refused in 1997 the possibility of compromise regarding the Russian - Japanese dispute over the Kuril Islands9, in spite of the fact that both countries already at that time expressed their interests to conclude a peace treaty until the end of 2000 (for example in Moscow Declaration from November 1998).
     Moscow Declaration from 1998 stressed the importance of development of a long-lasting constructive partnership, and both parties expressed their will to "overcome the burdening heritage of the past."10 Both Russia and Japan also referred to the so-called Tokyo Declaration, in which each party assured the other one in their efforts to continue discussions aimed at fast conclusion of a peace treaty via solution of the islands issue, all of this based on historical and legal facts and documents prepared by both parties. Declaration also referred to the "principles of legality and justice; all of these together should have normalized bilateral relations." In this context the governments of Japan and Russian Federation stressed out that "Russian Federation is a successor state to the USSR, and that all treaties and other international agreements concluded between Japan and the USSR will also be applied onto the relations between Japan and Russian Federation."11 President Boris Yeltsin, after series of informal meetings and statements about new personal friendships, also presented his interest to develop mutually beneficial bilateral relations.
     Many official and unofficial meetings of Russian President Putin and Japanese Prime Ministers took place since 2000. In September 2000, statesmen of both countries brought up the 1993 Tokyo Declaration and the 1998 Moscow Declaration, and decided to continue negotiations with the aim to conclude a peace treaty "via solving the issue of status of islands Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai."12 Strategic importance of Russian - Japanese relations was stressed again during the Irkutsk meeting in March, 2001. One month before this meeting, in February, there were news heard during an official visit of Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Igor Ivanov, about dualistic approach towards the islands issue solution. According to such plan, the two larger islands and two smaller islands would become two subjects of individual, but at the same time parallel negotiations. As a reaction to interpellation in State Duma regarding the approach of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the disputed islands issue, Igor Ivanov characterized the negotiating positions of both parties in the following way: "Japanese see them /borders, comment of the author/ further to the north then are four southern Kuril Islands, we strictly insist on current border line".13
     Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, E. Kagabuta, arrived to Moscow for an official visit in October 2002. At a meeting with his Russian counterpart the so-called "Japanese - Russian plan of activities" was agreed on. The plan contains six fundamental points: 1) intensification of a political dialogue, 2) efforts leading towards peace treaty conclusion, 3) cooperation in the international sphere, 4) economic cooperation, 5) cooperation on security and defense issues, 6) cultural and human resources exchange programs.14
     A chance to intensify political dialogue between both countries could have started with the meeting of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi and Russian President Putin in January 2003. Russian and Japanese diplomacies were not allowed to recede from their positions because of public opinion in their countries.15
     Territorial problem between Japan and Russia regularly leaves field of rational arguments, and inclines towards emotions. And all we are talking about is 5,000 square km of land and adjacent waters, three generations of life on islands, punishment of an aggressor or historical law. We are only able to present arguments of both parties and a brief sigh of Professor Konstantin Sarkisov: "Peace treaty will remain a task not fulfilled. The fundamental problem, territorial dispute, remains here as a remnant of the past war. The whole world went forward, only we are stuck in the middle of the last century."20
     So far the atmosphere of "responsibility winning over history" prevails on both sides of negotiating table. Nevertheless, more realistic approach and efforts to forget the cold war era thinking appear too. Well known is for example opinion of General G.V. Batenin, who prepared an analysis of military consequences for Russia in case of handing over two islands to Japan. General Batenin came to a conclusion that "transfer of these islands will have practically no influence on mutual balance of power and facilities", and that even in case of transfer of four islands, all of the facts stated in his analysis will be interesting "only from the global bipolar scheme, e.g. from the East - West division of world perspective."16 More and more space is gradually given to argumentation of economists.17 Both countries find common language in series of foreign trade issues, but in spite of that the mutual cooperation did not reach optimal level yet. Often mentioned problems are the volume and dynamics of mutual trade, and the extent of Japanese investments into Russian economy that does not always correspond with capability of both countries.18 Japanese and Russian counterparts refuse to provide guarantees necessary in case of joint companies situated on disputed islands, and refer to unsolved problems of the past. Non-ratified treaty is a burden more to Russia, which will be able to compete with other players in the region with its full capability only after conclusion of a peace treaty with Japan and delimitation of mutual border. Russia is facing an enormous task in diplomatic sphere, but also in consolidation of public opinion and "education" of government officials. Japan has to understand this, if it wants to fulfill its "historical obligation". A. Kornilov once mentioned: "Unless Japanese learn to negotiate about Kuril Islands in a Russian way, then they will never get these islands back. Moscow might be ready to make a concession tomorrow, but it is important that Japanese ask for them in the right way, and that they keep their mouth shut at the right time."19

5Материалы по истории территориального размежевания между Россией и Японией, (Materials about History of Territorial Demarcation between Russia and Japan)
6Между Россией и Японией - перетягивание каната на Тихом океане, (Between Russia and Japan - Tug-of-war in the Pacific Ocean)
7В. Еренин, «Территориальная проблема между Россией и Японией: история и современное состояние», (V. Yerenin, Territorial Dispute between Russia and Japan: History and Current Status)
8CTK, 25.7. 1997 (Czech Press Agency, July 25, 1997)
14For example a statement of Sakhalin Duma from meeting in Irkutsk notes: "Attempts to lead backstage negotiations with the aim to hand over Russian territory to a foreign state and to harm strategic, defense and economic interests of Russian Federation are acts of crime, and persons charged with commitment of such crimes must be prosecuted according to the laws of Russian Federation."
15Аллисон Г., Кимура Х., Саркисов Г., «От холодной вoйны к трехстороннему сотрудничеству в Азиатско-Тихоокеанском регионе, Моска, Восточная литература, 1993, с. 310-312 (Allison, G., Kimura, C. and Carkisov, G., From the Cold War Era to a Tripartite Cooperation in Asian Pacific Region, Moscow, Eastern Literature, 1993, pgs. 310-312)
16For example Ю. П. Синельник, «Что мы Курилам, что Курилы нам», Независимая газета, 11. 10. 2002. (J. P. Sinelnik, What We Give to Kuriles, and What Kuriles Give to Us, Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 11, 2002)
17Российское-японское отношение,
18 (Russian-Japanese Relations)
19Александр Корнилов, Курилы отдадут по схеме «два плюс два». (A. Kornilov, Kuril Islands Will Be Returned by the Two by Two Scheme, Gazeta.Ru)
20К.О. Саркисов, «Москве и Токио нужно начинать с нуля», Независимая газета, 11.10.2002. (K.O. Sarkisov, Moscow and Tokyo Have to Start from Point Zero, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 11, 2002)