Japan’s Other Territorial Headache
Image Credit: World Economic Forum

Japan’s Other Territorial Headache


The decision by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to become the first Russian (or indeed Soviet) head of state to visit what Japan describes as its Northern Territories couldn’t have come at a much worse time for Japan’s beleaguered government.

The Japanese are still recoiling from their latest confrontation with China over the Senkaku islands (known as the Diaoyu in Chinese), and want this weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit to be successful enough to allow Japan to start reclaiming some of the international lustre that has been flowing Beijing’s way in recent years.

And, until now, Moscow leaders had always avoided the provocative act of visiting what Russia calls the Southern Kurils for fear of antagonizing Japan. On this occasion, however, Medvedev must have calculated (correctly) that the weak Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, wouldn’t respond all that strongly to his decision to rekindle the 65-year-old dispute given the ongoing spat with China.

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Although Japanese officials warned Medvedev against conducting the visit when his planned trip became known, the Japanese government protested officially only after Medvedev set foot on the island of Kunashiri, recalling its ambassador to Russia for consultations. Japanese officials have also made clear they will still welcome Medvedev to the APEC summit.

The Northern Territories/Kurils dispute dates back to the end of World War II, and has been a prickly enough issue to ensure that Japan and Russia have never actually signed a formal peace treaty (making this the only legally unsettled conflict hanging over from the conflict).

At the end of the war, the Soviet military occupied the four islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu. The Soviet government then expelled most of the original inhabitants and established military bases and other settlements in their place. The Japanese government’s position is that while Tokyo did cede control of the Sakhalin and Kuril Islands to the USSR under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty (which the Soviet government never signed), the treaty’s provisions didn’t apply to the four islands of the Northern Territories because Tokyo has never recognized them as part of the Kuril chain.

Various proposals to divide control of the islands or establish creative shared sovereignty have failed to garner decisive support in both governments simultaneously—whenever one side seemed prepared to make a deal, the other party ended up declining to endorse it.

At present, the most commonly proposed compromise options are: (1) Russia transfers the two southernmost islands (Shikotan and Habomai) to Japan and the two countries jointly develop the other two; (2) Russia transfers three islands to Japan (splitting the difference between Moscow’s recurring offer to surrender two of them and Tokyo’s formal insistence on receiving all four); or (3) the so-called fifty-fifty plan in which the total area of the islands is equally divided, which would result in Japan’s receiving three of the islands and some part of the fourth and largest island. The Soviet government formally offered the first option in 1956, while various Russian leaders and officials have hinted at the possibilities of options 2 or 3 at some track II talks in Washington.

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