Japan, Russia Trade Kurils Barbs


Japan’s long running territorial dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands (which the Japanese refer to as the Northern Territories) has resurfaced, with the United States reaffirming its support for the idea that the islands should be returned to Japan. During US-Japan security consultations last week, Washington once again lent support to Tokyo’s insistence that the islands be returned to Japanese administration and sovereignty.

The issue remains dynamic and its relative importance ebbs and flows in the context of political developments in Moscow and Tokyo. Relations between the two on the dispute reached their nadir last November, when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made his now notorious visit to Kunashir Island. During the visit, Medvedev pledged to enhance Russia’s military posture on the island chain. Japan responded with its toughest words in years on the issue when Prime Minister Naoto Kan labelled the visit as ‘unforgiveable.’

This year started with a subdued tone on both sides. In Japan, the Kan administration has been overwhelmed with the recovery efforts from the Tohoku earthquake and political infighting within the Democratic Party of Japan. Russia has had its distractions too, including Moscow’s airport bombing in January and the ramping up of preparations to host the winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

Tokyo continues to view the Kurils as an irredentist struggle, while Moscow seems content to ride the status quo so long as bilateral relations continue relatively smoothly. Despite this, the Russian Foreign Ministry didn’t hesitate to condemn what it views as US interference in a bilateral dispute. The ministry released a statement last week noting that ‘questioning Russia's sovereignty over the South Kuril Islands, which are part of Russia's territory as a result of World War II, as enshrined in the UN Charter, is inappropriate.’

Moscow further hardened its stance by claiming that it doesn’t view a formal peace treaty ending World War II – which remains unsigned due to the Kuril dispute – as an essential step for positive relations with Japan. Last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov stressed that Japan and Russia continue to have a strong bilateral relationship despite their disagreement on this issue. He further attempted to soothe Japanese frustration with Medvedev’s visit last year by claiming that Russia doesn’t intend to significantly increase its military presence on the islands.

While US support for Japan’s claim is unsurprising, its public reaffirmation is reflective of enhanced bilateral security relations in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and attempts to diplomatically patch up the thorny situation of the Futenma base in Okinawa. Kan’s government needs to procure a tangible reimbursement for its flexibility on Futenma, and Washington’s strong backing to resolve the Kurils issue is one main part of this ‘strategic benefits’ package. 

October 9, 2011 at 16:03

I am Russian, so I am partial and biased. Yes, those islands belonged to Japan prior to WWII and Japan has the right to claim them. I would not be against Japanese taking those islands, if not for a very important detail. After Russia lost in Russian-Japanese war in 1905, Japan took over some Russian land, and Russia had to obey. Why? Because the winner gets his way. Russians conquered that territory during WWII, so why do they have to give it up? If you create your own rules, you stick by them. When Japan won, it got the land, but when Russia won, it has to give the land back? Not unless there is another war. Technically we are still at war with Japan, and we can live with that. It is nothing to be proud about, and I would rather see this issue resolved and a peace treaty signed, but since Russia will never give up the islands, I guess it will never happen. We can also live with the fact that the dispute over Kuril islands is a reminder to the rest of the world: “Don’t start a war, you will lose”.

July 1, 2011 at 12:10

The Japanese complain about the Kurile Islands that Russia seized at the end of WWII as compensation for Japanese aggression. Yet, many of the other island disputes that Japan has with China, Korea and Taiwan is owing to the earlier aggressions of Japan against those nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I would say, what goes round comes around. You start something then you live with the consequences. In my opinion, the Russians can keep those islands forever.

June 29, 2011 at 07:49

If the Americans are looking for a reset with Russia to isolate China they have been going about it in a funny way in the last 12 months or so. With NATO setting up shop in the former Soviet states and US missiles being set up in Poland and Romania, etc and now sh*t-stirring another issue on Russia’s eastern borders with Japan. The Americans must still think they hold all the cards. Look to Russia becoming even closer to China and the increased development of the SCO as well.

June 28, 2011 at 23:05

India needs Russia. Russia does not need India.

USA did not want to sell F-35 to India. That said a lot about what is “allies”.

India is nothing but a pet to USA. Only problem is that USA does not want to feed it.

June 28, 2011 at 22:37

Very true, but depending on its actions, India has the ability to influence Russia’s actons just as much as China, if not more. Obviously India is much more alligned with U.S influence, although they have not fromally entered the U.S’s short list of allies, its clearly heading in that direction.

June 28, 2011 at 19:06

Russia will need China’s help too.

Russia and China are friends in need. They do not have to like each other.

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

June 28, 2011 at 09:16

The US is certainly setting out its store for Asia

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