Getting Serious: An End to the Russia-Japan Dispute?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool

Getting Serious: An End to the Russia-Japan Dispute?


As Japan remains mired in seemingly intractable territorial rows with China and South Korea, there seems to be a window of opportunity on its dispute with Russia over the Northern territories (referred to as the Southern Kurile Islands in Russia). On August 19, Japan and Russia will formally commence high-level negotiations on resolving the dispute, which has thus far precluded both sides from formally signing a peace treaty to end hostilities from World War II. This follows up on a pledge by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during his historic state visit to Russia this past February, that he is committed to working with Russian President Vladimir Putin to finally reach a mutually acceptable conclusion to the issue.

The meeting later this month in Moscow will bring together Japan’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shinsuke Sugiyama and his Russian counterpart Igor Morgulov. While the agenda will also focus on positive engagement, such as bolstering energy ties. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, hinted earlier this month that early discussions on a peace treaty were “possible.” While the language is non-committal, the policy tilt from Tokyo over the past six months has been significant.

For the past decade, Japan-Russia relations withered as politicians in both countries tried to assuage nationalist sentiment and engage in politicking. Indeed, it was less than three years ago that former President Dmitri Medvedev became the first leader of Russia or the former Soviet Union to step foot on the disputed isles, prompting then-Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to call the actions an “unforgiveable outrage.” And a Russia-Japan détente has not been made easier by Moscow’s recent embrace of Beijing – even though the nature of such engagement is opaque and likely benign in the short term.      

The one difference this time around is Tokyo’s determination to get a deal done and normalize relations with Russia. Abe’s summit in Russia last winter should not be viewed as mere window-dressing. In fact, the visit marked the first time a Japanese leader had made an official state visit to Russia since former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Putin met for three days in 2003. Abe has motivation to get a deal done with Russia and his government has been sending feelers out on a compromise deal. Shotaro Yachi, one of Abe’s personal confidants and a special advisor to the Cabinet, recently teased out the idea broached by Putin last year of hikiwake – or a “comprise” on the territorial row. Yachi noted in an interview before the recent Upper House elections that, “Japan needs to go into the negotiations with a strong determination to settle this issue once and for all while Putin remains president. If Putin broaches the idea of a hikiwake, we shouldn’t reject the idea outright. We should explore the possibilities of a hikiwake in a form that would be acceptable to Japan.”

This is a considerable shift in thinking for Japan and Yachi indicated that there needs to be recognition that a deal may result in political blowback: “No solution is going to win unanimous popular support in either Japan or Russia. An acceptable compromise would be one that a majority in both countries can support. But that will entail a larger agreement embracing cooperation in areas like energy and the environment. Hopefully, people will see it as a win for both sides once all of those elements are taken into account. The key is putting together an agreement that doesn’t give one side a clear victory over the other.”

In fact, Abe’s drive for a compromise with Putin was initiated from the first days after his election last year and was actualized with his dispatch of special envoy and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to Moscow this past February. Mori, who maintains a close personal relationship with Putin, made waves in Japan by going on national television before his visit and floating the necessity for a compromise on the territorial dispute, stressing that this was the only  “realistic approach” to resolving the spat.

September 16, 2013 at 01:33

That or this racist person is not even Australian to begin with perhaps

September 16, 2013 at 01:31

I concur.
Russia should and probably is weary of the growing Chinese military might on it’s doorstep.
Russia would be prudent to hedge against that with Japan.

August 25, 2013 at 05:03

Given your racist use of "greedy and devious nipponsan", can I assume that we're in the presence of a distinguished member from the 50 Cent Party?

August 23, 2013 at 08:53

As a fellow Auusie (migrant), I agree. It's not Japan alone but also the US's pivot to Asia that both China and Russia take into account.  The USA is surrounding both countries with misslie bases both for interception and attack.  The Russians holding onto the Kuriles gives them flight access close to the US's "unsinkable" carrier, Japan.  Any missile or attacks launched from Japan or S. Korea would invite retaliation from either China or Russia if attacked.  Let's hope the S. Korean's have the veto on any US instigated attacks from their territory.

Little Helmsman
August 22, 2013 at 04:38

@James the "Australian",

Sounds more like the mouthpiece of a jealous CCP member.  Japan has plenty to offer Russia.  For one thing Japan has capital, know how, technology, etc. for Russia.  Japan can help develop Russia Far East hinterlands.  Plus Russia has a long continuous border with China.  It would be very prudent of any Russian leader to develop a closer link to Japan as a hedge on China.  

saddumb h obama
December 1, 2013 at 10:47

BS. Return North America to native American Indians first. And we’ll talk about returning Northern Islands to POS Japan.

papa john
August 21, 2013 at 06:20

A strong NKorea would turn its gun on bully China for sure.

Little Helmsman
August 21, 2013 at 02:33

Yes, a strong unified, democratic Korea would be a mini-superpower of the region!  I would definitely support such a prospect.  No more Kims! 

James the Australian
August 20, 2013 at 20:42

True. Why would Russia gives up these precious real estates?
Japan has nothing to offer in return!
Bear in mind these Kuriles islands has a total land mass bigger than Hokkaido.
Greedy and devious Nipponsan refusing to return Duoyutai to its rightful owner China can expect Russia to continue exerting sovereignty over these Kuriles islands .
A peace treaty will only come if Japan accept Russian sovereignty.

August 20, 2013 at 15:16

"A strong Japan and a strong Russia would make the Chinese less arrogant and less assertive."  

How about strong North Korea?

August 20, 2013 at 10:16

I hope Russia and Japan unite to destroy the corrupt CCP.

Dewey Last
August 20, 2013 at 07:46

…For all these reasons, it will be important for both sides to approach next week’s meetings with a renewed sense of urgency as well as the requisite political will needed to reach a hikiwake on the territorial dispute.

The Russia-Japan trade volume was US$32 billion in 2012, or about 160,000 Toyota sedans in value. For the 3rd and 9th largest economies, this volume is not significant. Australia, a country one-seventh of the population of Russia, buys over 50% more Toyotas than this. *And this scenario is one-way trade only. 

Principal Russian exports to Japan (over 98% of the total volume) consist of crude oil; LNG; oil products; unprocessed aluminum; black coal; unprocessed palladium and platinum; lumber; ferrous alloy; and marine products. Major imports from Japan (84.7%) are automobiles; trucks; auto parts; construction equipment; printing equipment; radio and television equipment; medical and power-generation equipment; and lift-and-carry machinery. Principal Russian exports to Japan (over 98% of the total volume) consist of crude oil; LNG; oil products; unprocessed aluminum; black coal; unprocessed palladium and platinum; lumber; ferrous alloy; and marine products. Major imports from Japan (84.7%) are automobiles; trucks; auto parts; construction equipment; printing equipment; radio and television equipment; medical and power-generation equipment; and lift-and-carry machinery.

Russia sells petroleum products and raw materials. These are mostly Sakhalin and coastal Siberia located resources. Japan sells consumer and manufactured items. Russia will need to increase their export revenue to import more from Japan. The total revenue of Russian raw materials will decrease later this year and throughout the decade as carbon shale petroleum products find its way into the market.

On August 16, 2006, Russian maritime authorities killed a Japanese fisherman and captured a crab fishing boat in the waters around the disputed Kuril Islands. The Russian foreign ministry has claimed that the death was caused by a "stray bullet".

On September 28, 2006, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would "continue the dialogue with the new Japanese government. We will build our relations, how the peoples of the two countries want them to be. Then-Foreign Minister Taro Aso remained on his post in the government. We have good, long-standing relations, we will act under the elaborated program."

The dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands deteriorated Russo-Japan relations when the Japanese government published a new guideline for school textbooks on July 16, 2008 to teach Japanese children that their country has sovereignty over the Kuril Islands. The Russian public was generally outraged by the action and demanded the government to counteract. The Foreign Minister of Russia announced on July 18, 2008 "[these actions] contribute neither to the development of positive cooperation between the two countries, nor to the settlement of the dispute," and reaffirmed its sovereignty over the islands.

On January 30, 2010, Russian border guards engaged in a dispute with two Japanese fishing boats.

After the election of the new Japanese Prime MinisterNaoto Kan, he said he would energetically address Japan’s ties with Russia and would "push the wheels of the cart forward", both in the field of politics and economics, which would eventually lead to a peace treaty after the many years of the Kuril Islands Dispute.[8] Medvedev visited Kunashir Island on November 1 where he described the Kuril islands as "a very important region in our country," and angered Japan, whose Prime Minister Naoto Kan called his visit "regrettable".

Following the heating up of the dispute in early 2011, President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev ordered significant reinforcements to the Russian defences on the Kuril Islands in February 2011. [wikipedia]

Relations between Japan and Russia are never cordial. According to a Pew Global survey the Japanese have a 72% unfavorable view of Russia which the article fails to mention. In February of 2013, two Russian fighters entered into Japanese airspace.  A case can be made the Japanese people view Russia more unfavorably than China. 


Personally I do not see why there is any need to negotiate any energy deals bwtween the two countries as carbon products will decline in price over the next decade. Why negotiate now when the prices may be lower in the future. Why invest in pipelines when Russia will not do so themselves. If a pipeline is not built, then Russia will have to face a future of lower export revenue. Russia does not produce much of anything of value except for military hardware to third world countries. The GDP figures show Russia with a 0.5% growth in GDP, a figure which will turn negative as exports decrease in value. 

All negotiations are one-sided with Russia holding all the cards. Russia really does not need to cede the Kurils. Japan does not need the carbon since it will be readily and inexpensively available from other sources and domestic sources seem technologically feasible to develop. I faill to see why the two countries need each other. 


August 20, 2013 at 07:15

Truth is that Putin is the only one with whom Japan leadership can have any agreement on "Northern Territories". Idea of giving any land back to Japan is so unpopular in Russia, that only leader with Putin's clout can think about it. Japan could have any agreement with Eltsin, it would never be ratified, and Medvedev would even dared to think giving up any land. Now if Putin has really "broached" hikiwake idea, he will ask for something big (like military alliance). If Japanese leaders are not delusional we can see some interesting developments in the future.

Little Helmsman
August 20, 2013 at 03:25

It would be great if Japan and Russia can resolve the differences the two countries have.  WWII was a long time ago and at least a peace treaty should be signed by the two powers to move forward.  That would be great if Japan can recover the Kuriles at least the southern portion of it.  A strong Japan and a strong Russia would make the Chinese less arrogant and less assertive.  

9 Cracked on the b$m
August 19, 2013 at 21:05

The relationship between Russia and China had been warmer recently because:
1) Xi Jinping first oversea trip was to Russia so that he could kowtow to Putin in a private one on one meeting.
2) CCP need Russian Advanced weapons in order to imitate them as China made.

There was a rumor that Peng Liyuang sangs many songs to Russian parliament members to mask the rumble sound of the the illigal Chinese immigrants entering Russian Far East, mostly are young men of prime military age. No women and Children accompany them.

Behind China's Border line with Russia, more than half of China's 2.5 million ground troops are organized into offensive unit speciliazing in blitzkrieg style land warfare. 

Xi assuredPutin that his daughter and any other Elite CCP member's children will NOT be fighting at the frontline.Their jobs are to run the big China firms.

saddumb h obama
December 1, 2013 at 11:02

Wrong on all counts. China’s import of Russian military hardware has dropped significantly. Not all defense imports were aimed at reverse engineering. China is sitting on mountains of dollars that are losing value fast. China obviously doesn’t want to be a sucker and continue to invest in worthless US government bonds. Russian’s defense sector is seriously in need of cash and China’s orders benefit both sides as long as China considers the price reasonable. China is rapidly approaching parity with Russia in terms of defense technology, research and development. Chinese variants of Russian flankers are now deemed both different than and superior to the originals by Russian pilots.

August 19, 2013 at 19:29

Hopefully Japan and Russia can find some common ground and turn their mistrust to China. It would be interesting to hear speculation on just what sort of compromises may be made.

saddumb h obama
December 1, 2013 at 11:12

Put the crack pipe down, will ya. Read some real news and you will find that Putin has repeatedly made it clear that there will be no negotiations on the Northern Islands. The only way to get them back is war. Russia is a founding member of the SCO (look it up), along with China and 3 other countries. Japan and the US are their de facto common enemies on issues of defense in the Pacific. What happened to the IQ of average Americans!?

Dewey Last
August 19, 2013 at 16:13


Very inciteful. At times I learn more from you than watching Nickelodean. 

August 19, 2013 at 13:16

Both Putin and Abe are nationalists and voted in by the nationalists. So expect no compromise. It is Russia's best interests not to give up Kurils or other disputed islands. Russia's pivot to East Asia makes it mandatory to have these islands.

It is wrong to say Russia is desperately looking for new suitors. Russia has enough buyers and will not supply oil to China at a loss.

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