The Kuril Islands lie north of Japan, and their status has been unresolved since 1945.Importance of Kuril Islands lies in strategic importance and access to Pacific for Russia. Importance of the Northern Territories lies also in its rich marine life, mineral deposits, gold, silver, titanium, iron and possibly offshore oil and gas reserves. National pride also plays an important role.
Russia’s view is that Kuril Islands, called by Japan the Northern territories are legally part of Russia as a result of the World War II. The Yalta Agreement, signed by the United States of America, Great Britain and the Soviet Union in 1945 stated the Kuril Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union and since Russia is its legal successor islands are Russian. Russian official stance is that Japans territorial claim over Kuril Islands is not historical nor geographical supported. Russian officials have expressed their preparedness to negotiations and resolving the territorial dispute. Kremlin considers the Northern territories to be the price Japan payed for Second World War. Russia also points to the Treaty of San Francisco as justification of ownership, which gave them right of occupation not annexation.
Japan’s view on four disputed islands Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, Habomai islands which also have two names, one Russian and the other Japanese, differs from Russian. Disputed islands were annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of the WW II. Japan points out the Treaty of Shimoda – the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation from 1855, which defines the border between countries as a line running through the Vries Strait, between the islands of Iturup and Urup is a keystone in Japan’s claim of ownership. The Treaty of Saint Petersburg signed in 1875 gave Japan sovereignty over the entire Kuril Islands in exchange of relinquishing its claim to Sakhalin Islands. Japan and United State claimed that the Yalta agreement did not apply to the Northern territories because they are not a part of the Kuril Islands. Potsdam Declaration from the same year does not explicitly include the Northern territories, but in the phrase that Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the four major islands and “such minor islands as we determine” is today used to justify the Japan sovereignty over the islands. In 1951 Japan signed The San Francisco Peace Treaty, which states that Japan must give up all claims to the Kuril Islands, but these four islands were not mentioned since by Japan opinion has never been part of the Kurile chain. The peace treaty, however, did not grant a non-signatory country – Russia any rights. Since the 1960s country claimed all four islands to be Japanese territory. Japanese authorities oppose to any trips by Russian officials to these islands. We have seen many protests and not only on the Northern Territories Day. In 2010 when Dimitri Medvedev, as a first Russian leader to visit the islands, visited disputed islands sharp criticism from Japan began and temporary called its ambassador back from Russia. Their official stance is that Russia should return all four islands to Japan. In 2009 Japanese parliament adopted a law stating the Southern Kuril Islands are Japanese territory unlawfully occupied by Russians. All agree that territorial issues should be settled by a peace treaty.
With many international agreements and peace treaties between the Japan and Russia and before Soviet Union Robert A. Collins has in his paper in 2013 examined The Russo-Japanese Dispute over the Ownership of the Southern Kuril Island and concluded that scientific evidence and legal evidence justify Russia’s claim to all of the Kuril Island chain, including the islands of Kunashir and Iturup. He has summoned up that Japan in highly unlikely to sign a peace treaty with Russia. Is he right?
Broader region is also changing as a result of regional competition. Military Balance by International Institute for Strategic Studies revealed that Russia ranked third on scale of top defence budgets (in billions of US dollars spend for defence) for the year 2013 and what is surprising is that Japan is very high on the scale on seventh place. Regional competition and rival are seen among nations in Asia. China has raised concerns about Japan defense budget and questioned if Japan was abandoning it’s exclusively defence policy based on peace constitution that was signed at the end of the World War II with which country, gave up the right to wage war and was forbidden of use of force to settle international disputes. Japan plans for defense spending for fiscal 2015 was set to 42.1 billion dollars or about 329 dollars per capita, which is the highest largest military budget since WWII and three times larger compered to China. Reason is also territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Based on the World Bank Russia military expenditure as a % of GDP are 4.5 and rising and Japan 1% stagnating.
Recent events regarding the relationship between countries are Russia’s prime ministers Dmitry Medvedev intentions to visit archipelago that includes Japanese claimed islands. A senior official in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement “If Russia wants to improve relations with Japan, it should restrain its actions”. Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has also sent a request to cancel the visit. The date of the visit is unknown, but the purpose, official Russian statement, is to bolster border security and installation of military and civil infrastructure on the islands. Russian government revealed a program to develop southern Kuril Islands or Northern Territories called by the Japanese. Japan and Russia are trying to build and strengthen their relationship with economic cooperation. We have seen many statements and intentions made publicly which are not helping to reach the goal of cooperation and solution of so long lasting territorial dispute that is not going to solve itself over time. It looks like backward solutions are not working so new narrative should be found. The territorial dispute should not be resolved separately but within the broader concept. Maybe some guaranties should be made because Japan is afraid the scenario that happened in the Crimea could also happen in the Kuril Islands. We are still waiting for the right solution that could solve the territorial dispute between Russia and Japan and could lead to increased cooperation between the countries. Agreement and solution between Moscow and Tokyo has yet to be reached and question of the rightful owner has to be answered.