Earlier this month, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori appeared on national television and drew a line on the map separating Japan from Russia. Mori’s line was directly northeast of three of the disputed isles (Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai) but intentionally stopped short of including the largest island, Etorofu, which remained in Russian territory and signaled Mori’s desire to compromise with Russia. Mori justified this concession as a “realistic approach” to resolving the long standing territorial row between the two countries.
Over the years, there have been a host of diplomatic attempts by both sides to determine who has legal sovereignty over the islands. Unfortunately, the two remain at loggerheads and firmly entrenched in their positions which are muddied by a series of historical treaties dating back to 1855. Tokyo claims that the sovereignty of the Northern Territories (referred to as Southern Kurils by Russia) has never been debatable and that the four disputed islands have been part of Japan since the early 19th century. This is confirmed, according to Japan, by— among other treaties— the Shimoda Treaty of 1855 and the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905 at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese war. For its part, Russia pays little heed to Japan’s claims on the islands, instead pointing to a number of international treaties—including the Yalta Agreement (1945) and Potsdam Declaration (1945)— as proof of its sovereignty. Russia also emphasizes that the 1951 San Francisco Treaty serves as legal evidence that Japan acknowledged Russian sovereignty over the islands, a claim Tokyo vehemently denies.
Almost immediately following the Mori proposal, the administration of new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rebuked the comments and insisted that Japan would maintain its official policy that all four islands be returned. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga underscored this with a caveat: “(The government) will firmly maintain its basic policy, which is to confirm that the four islands belong to Japan and thereafter conclude a peace treaty with Russia. Then we can be flexible over the timing of actual reversions of those islands.” But Tokyo is not pouring cold water on resolving the spat and has agreed to send Mori, who has a strong relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to Russia in early February to kick start negotiations. There are also reports that Abe is hoping to travel to Russia later in the spring with the intent of making concrete progress on resolving the dispute.
Unfortunately, we have seen this narrative before, most notably in 1998 when Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto sought to use his personal friendship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to reach a grand bargain. In what would come to be known as the “Kawana Proposal,” Tokyo proposed the two sides demarcate their borders with the Northern Territories belonging to Japan. In return, Hashimoto promised Yeltsin that Japan would agree to continued Russian administration and joint economic development of the islands. Hashimoto’s also promised that Japan would sign a peace treaty with Russia if Yeltsin agreed to the proposal. In other words, Hashimoto offered to delay tangible sovereignty in favor of legal recognition. However, the gambit failed: Russia rejected the proposal later that fall.