2. Kuril Islands/Northern Territories
The Kuril Islands stretch between northern Japan and the southern tip of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. They are commonly described in three groups – Northern, Central and Southern – all of which are under Russian control. Japan claims only the four islands of the Southern Kurils (which it refers to as the Northern Territories).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Both Japan, working up from the south, and Russia, working down from the north, began seriously exploring the island chain in the 18th century. Japan took formal control of the four Southern Kuril islands in 1799, while Russia assumed control of the Northern and Central Kuril islands in 1821. The key moment formalizing this arrangement came with the signing of the Treaty of Shimoda in 1855, when Japan and Russia set their national boundary between the islands of Etorofu and Urup (i.e. between the Southern and Central islands groups).
But Japan then changed the status quo, assuming control over all three island groups during its period of late 19th century expansionism. This situation was then reversed when the Soviet Union took over the entire chain at the end of World War II – having declared war on Japan just days before Tokyo’s surrender.
While the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 specifically mentioned that Japan renounced its claim to the Kuril Islands, this is problematic as regards the Southern group because the Soviet Union never signed the treaty (meaning that Japan and Russia are even now formally at war); and Japan denies that it ever meant “the Kuril Islands” to include the four islands constituting the Northern Territories, which it says it has claimed throughout.
Russia has offered to return the two smallest and southernmost of the four islands to Japan as a way of resolving the dispute, but Japan has rejected this solution.
Tentative conclusions: Russia’s historical claim to the Southern Kurils is weak, just as its annexation of the islands in 1945 was opportunistic. However, it could be argued that Japan was the first to tear up the 1855 treaty establishing a settled Russo-Japanese border in the Kurils, and that its own aggressive actions rendered that border obsolete.