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Europe and China – Factors of Mutual Understanding

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Geopolitics: enmity, rapprochement, concrete political or military decisions besides straightforward interests are often based on perceptions and influenced by the (lack of) understanding of the counterpart. That is what call the geopolitics of perceptions which is probably more important than we think. It is true in the Sino-European relations that have a long history.

What would we see if we took a quick look at China’s few thousand years of history? A vast country with a sophisticated culture, which for thousands of years was miles ahead of the rest of the world both in terms of wealth and intellectual achievements. A people that gave the world porcelain, gunpowder, paper, the compass, steel-making and the printing press. A country that managed to protect its territory from invading barbarians for long centuries. A country that at one time considered itself so developed and perfect that it sealed its doors off to the outside world, much to its own misfortune. But, one day, China’s splendid isolation was disturbed as men from the faraway continent of Europe appeared. More and more arrived on bigger and bigger ships guns. Even the most knowledgeable of the European had a limited understanding of China and its people at that time. David Hume considered non-whites (including the Chinese) to be inferior peoples. Immanuel Kant believed that the Chinese race was a mix of Hindi Indians and Mongols.

Zhongguo or ”Central Kingdom”, i.e. the middle of the universe — this is what China is to the Chinese. Surrounded by devils: black devils in Africa and dog-headed big-nosed ones in Europe. Social autism and a tendency to isolationism, which caused China’s 19th-century decline, have always been characteristic of this great nation, the most ancient of all living cultures. Chinese culture has had an impact on all of Asia for thousands of years and since the Middle Ages (the European “Middle Ages” that is) on Europe too. China, as is so often the case, only looks homogeneous from a distance. There may be no borders, but this continent of a country is just as diverse genetically, linguistically and culturally as Europe. In the light of its heterogeneity and size, it is even more amazing that China is the oldest political unit in the world.

One of the secrets is that the elite exercising political control has always been the sole holder of all wealth, law and justice. The political function has always dominated the way Chinese society is organized. There have never been separate religious, economic or military elites as was customary in Europe. Political power is the absolute power in China, and the one and only focus of this political power is the state. This is something we must keep in mind when assessing today’s China with its malformed democracy and uncompromising immense state projects. In China there is hardly any public opinion, there are only decisions and implementation. The Himalayas keep China conveniently closed off from the West and India. Westerners must accept that China is different from our Indo-European cultures: the way it sees the world, politics, arts, law and religion is completely different. God and property are sacred values in the West — not in China. We seek the truth, the moral, the punchline, all of which are worthless to a Chinese. Westerners and Indians divide the world into categories; the Chinese see the world as dynamic, accidental and symbolic. How postmodern, one might say, using a Western term.

The relationship between China and Europe has always been shaped by two factors. The first one, distance, proved to be insuperable for a long time but was surmounted with the help of modern technology and improved transport. The second one, trade, remains a central element of Sino-European relations. Trade links between the two continents can be traced all the way back to early Christianity. The volume of goods transported on the famous Silk Road showed a considerable imbalance from the beginning and all Rome could offer in return were precious metals and valuables. This trade imbalance has always been present, but today is caused by China’s role in the global supply chain rather than by its self-sufficiency.

Even a “What you need to know”-type abridged version of Chinese history would run longer than the New Testament, so I will only pick out a few interesting episodes. During the rule of the Yuan Dynasty (which was of Mongol origin) from 1271 to 1368, travel to China became easier as the areas between China and Western Asia were mostly controlled by Mongol khans. The gates of China opened to foreigners. Kublai Khan even sent his envoys to Pope Clement IV with a request for a hundred Christian missionaries to promote Christianity and Western sciences among the Mongols. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo was probably the best-known foreign visitor ever to set foot in China and Mongolia. He arrived in 1275. On his account, when the 21-year-old was led to the Khan, he offered his services to the great Khan, who accepted, eventually rewarding the young Venetian with senior administrative posts. He spent the next twenty or so years under Kublai Khan. Marco Polo was appointed a member of the Khan’s Privy Council in 1277 and for three years he was a tax inspector in Yanzhou. In his book on his epic journey, Marco Polo describes a flourishing, developed and wealthy China handed down from the late Song dynasty and yet unspoiled by Mongol rule.

The Travels of Marco Polo became a medieval bestseller, but readers did not take the book altogether seriously, nicknaming the traveler Marco Milione and his book Il Milione (The Million, probably hinting at the number of lies told). Just like modern readers, his contemporaries were skeptical about Marco Polo’s writings, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the works of Arab and Persian travelers of the time. An armchair scholar or a great traveler, undoubtedly he left his mark on European geography, literature and history. But Marco Polo was only the first of many Europeans who made the long trip to China. Still under the Yuan Dynasty, Pope Nicholas IV sent Giovanni da Montecorvino as a Roman legate to the Great Khan, and he was consecrated as the first archbishop of Peking in 1307. Mongol emperors, who never had an unclouded relationship with the Chinese they governed, had the habit of appointing foreigners to public office, opened China to foreign traders and allowed — sometimes even promoted — all kinds of strange new religions. The Yuan era was the last period of the Empire when China was not characterized by introversion. From the 15th century on, China practically sealed off its gates to the outside world.

Portuguese vessels first landed in China in 1514, followed by the Spanish in 1543 and the Dutch another five decades later. European missionaries tried for centuries to gain a foothold on Chinese soil. One of the most successful missionaries was the Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, who traveled around China disguised as a Buddhist monk before settling in Beijing in 1601. The Chinese were usually more interested in European technological innovations than spiritual dogmas (yet another Chinese trait we consider contemporary but in fact one with a very long history), and the Jesuits were happy to satisfy their curiosity. Ricci, who took the time and energy to learn about Chinese culture, introduced several technological novelties, among them the watch. He ended up being named the patron saint of Chinese watchmakers. Until the 19th century, Jesuits fulfilled an important cultural mission in the Chinese court, playing a vital role in the promotion of Europe’s cultural, scientific and technological achievements.

Between 1500 and 1800, China had a significant impact on the modernization of Europe. From the beginning of the 16th century, there were continuous and direct relations between Europe and China. Geoffrey Hudons labeled this period “China Besieged”, by which he meant that European nations drew a cordon around China both by sea and land but were never able to conquer it. In fact, European traders were restricted to a handful of ports, and although the Jesuits brought with them a superior knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, resulting in a more accurate calendar, European presence never left a lasting mark on the Chinese mentality.

The impact was much more significant the other way around: Europe was more influenced by China than vice versa. The reports of the Portuguese and Jesuits on China’s achievements in standards of living, urbanization, technology and governance had a major impact on Europe at the time of the Enlightenment. Leibniz and Voltaire, two key thinkers of the Enlightenment, were greatly influenced by Confucianism and Chinese philosophy. The philosopher Leibniz praised the Chinese for their efficiency in adapting ethics and politics to practical life. Voltaire was impressed in particular by the secular nature of Confucianism and by the absence of clerical influence within government. However, many idealized the example of China in their fight against the ancien regime. Similarly, in the 1960s, Western student movements adopted the rhetoric of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in their protests against the establishment.

China was not only used as a model in fighting the existing order; some Chinese ideals were used as a basis for new theories. One example is Francois Quesnay, who in the 18th century started out from his theory on ”natural order” and — influenced by Chinese philosophy — arrived at his economic doctrine of laissez faire. Others, such as Rousseau, were more critical of China. Nevertheless, China’s influence on the European continent at the time is unquestionable. The import of porcelain and tea established new social customs; the cult of Chinese products bred the fashion of chinoiserie, which spread from the affluent to the rising middle classes. Europe’s admiration for China stemmed from its perceived superiority but, by the end of the 18th century, people’s enthusiasm for all things Chinese faded due to the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and China’s resistance to change.

It took several decades from the arrival of Portuguese vessels on the Chinese coast to establish serious trading links between Europe and China. In 1699, England set up a trade representation in Canton in South China, which became and remained the center of Chinese-Western trade for centuries. Despite earning a hefty profit from customs duties levied on goods going through the port of Canton, China tried to restrict and control foreign trade as much as it could. England, on the other hand, wanted to boost trade and gain more access to Chinese markets and ports. A British embassy sent in 1793 to the court of the Emperor was given a welcome befitting a barbarian king’s envoy offering submission, their gifts were considered as “tribute,” but the Emperor refused to listen to British demands. Apart from trade restrictions, Britain had another problem with China. While the West wanted tea, silk and porcelain from China, it had little to offer in return. European merchants had to pay in silver, the only commodity the Chinese would accept. As a result, a lot of European silver was ending up in Chinese pockets. China was one of the world’s biggest economies. (Curiously, history repeats itself: two hundred years on, the trade balance between China and the West looks uncannily similar. The West buys what China exports. It is not accidental that China had accumulated trillions of dollars in reserves by the beginning of the 21st century.) By the 1820s, however, the flow of silver to China was reversed as Britain found a product that tickled China’s fancy: opium. With contraband opium Britain could finally reverse the trade deficit and get its silver back.

By the end of the 19th century, China was no longer a remote, mysterious land sealed off from the outside world. With the help of its merchants and missionaries the West had penetrated the Great Wall. In the 19th century; China underwent a shock therapy of social, economic and intellectual changes and was repeatedly humiliated ignominiously by Europeans. A series of military defeats and embarrassing treaties delivered a serious blow to China’s national pride and traditional worldview. The disdain for foreigners shifted into anti-European sentiment and mass xenophobia. The most extreme example was the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. This popular uprising by the “Righteous Fists of Harmony” — called Boxers in the West — was a violent anti-imperialist, anti-Christian movement triggered by Western expansion into North China. The rebel leaders called for the death of all foreigners and Christians in the country. They went as far as murdering the German envoy, who was on his way to the Empress dowager. The rebels laid siege to the Legation Quarter in Beijing, where foreigners sought refuge. The poorly armed Boxer rebels were unable to break into the compound, which was relieved by European, Japanese and US troops, which quashed the rebellion. Under the terms of the Boxer Protocol, the West exacted enormous war reparations from China. Chinese customs duties and salt taxes were enlisted as guarantees of the indemnity, and the Legation Quarters occupied by foreigners were removed from Chinese jurisdiction.

In the second half of the 19th century, China went on the defensive against European aggression. One of the most shameful and sordid episodes in European history was Britain’s illicit opium trade, which happened with the tacit agreement of the Crown and generated fabulous profits. Some historians suggest that the British East India Company conducted extensive market research to find a moneymaker that it could offer in exchange for Chinese silver. They chose opium, which had been widely used in China as an analgesic drug for centuries, and using the same methods as drug cartels in the 20th century, started “pushing” opium and gradually built up the illicit drug trade. Opium consumption spread quickly throughout China, opium parlors proliferated, and by the 1830s drug trafficking was a major business. The East India Company, with its monopoly on opium production in India, had a nearly limitless supply, exporting 200 chests in 1729, 20,000 chests in 1860 and 100,000 chests in 1873. The Chinese government tried to curb the opium trade and the outflow of silver. A newly appointed Imperial commissioner confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of contraband opium in a large-scale crackdown in 1839. In response, the British blockaded the city of Canton and the First Opium War broke out. Faced with the superior British fleet and army, China was defeated and forced to sign an ignominious peace treaty in 1842. The Treaty of Nanking ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain and opened five key ports to British trade. With a series of unfair and unequal treaties the colonizing powers managed to open almost a hundred Chinese ports and over thirty concession zones. Still, the West could never take full control of this vast country, let alone make it an exclusive colony of a single power. Instead, the rival colonial empires each established their own areas of interest on Chinese territory.

Western powers, in particular Britain and France, exploiting the weakness of the Chinese Emperor and enjoying the support of Russia and the USA, launched a military campaign against the Chinese government, which became known as the Second Opium War (1856-60). Unable to resist the advancing British and French, the Chinese negotiated yet another Treaty. The Treaty of Tianjin, among others, opened additional ports to foreign trade and required China to pay considerable war reparations. Until the reparations were paid in full, Western powers would occupy the city of Tianjin and another two ports. As a result of the opium wars, China lost much of its sovereignty to foreign powers. The once great and proud Chinese Empire was forced into semi-colonial status.

To the Chinese the Opium Wars marked the beginning of long years of humiliation and exploitation by foreigners. This is the period where we find the roots of China’s mixed feelings towards the West: on the one hand, they admire the developed Western economy and technology as well as the achievements of Western civilization; on the other hand the idea of the “colonizing white man” especially British sends shivers down their spines and stirs animosity towards the West as a whole. When I visited the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 2014 my Chinese counterpart made a half-funny remark on his English interpreter, saying that “she speaks a very good English but she still needs to learn the American accent, as we prefer it to the British one around here.”

In the 19th century, Europe brought extensive and rapid changes to a country that had been stable for thousands of years and whose society, economy and culture had been used to slow, gradual change. Europe first knocked on the door, but China being reluctant to let the newcomer in, Europe kicked the door open. At the turn of the 19th century, China’s agriculture, which employed 80% of the 400-million strong population, still used ancient technology and obsolete methods. As the country’s population grew, the area of farmed land remained unchanged. Farming technology too was unchanged, well behind the times. Rural communities were largely self-sufficient, capable of producing little marketable surplus. These economic circumstances considerably limited urbanization and industrialization. What China was unable to do on its own, Europe did for her: the Chinese economy was in these years largely built with and therefore dominated by foreign capital. The banking system, shipping companies, railroad construction, mining, and certain industrial sectors, such as iron and steelmaking and textiles, all owed their birth to Western investment. The Chinese elite had to decide how much of the old China it could try to keep and how much of the West to accept for the sake of modernization. It remains a disputed question whether China would have been able to modernize itself without the West and whether the West fulfilled a mission by modernizing China or simply destroyed the old China.

Western ideas breached the Great Wall of China way before the Opium Wars: this process began with the translation of the Bible and other religious texts into Chinese. However, the translation of Western literature into the local language only began on a large scale in the early 19th century. At this time the Chinese elite became interested in the West, its military, industrial and technological advances, as well as its philosophy, political institutions, social structures and literature. Various schools of thought sought to copy Western models and modernize the traditional system of Confucianism. China sought to modernize itself to be able to keep up with the European invaders. But it was too late; China was unable to lift itself out of trouble. It proved too feeble and had fallen too far behind the West for such a bootstrapping act.

Europe’s position in China was considerably weakened by the two world wars and reached its lowest ebb during the Cold War. With the Cold War over a reunified Europe and an ever-changing China were given a new opportunity to reshape their bilateral relations. However, a new breaking point appeared alongside the traditional geopolitical opposition: Europe and China had drifted apart ideologically in the wake of Communism’s victory in China.

We have seen that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Europe had a crucial impact on China. The key legacy of this period, which China refers to as “the century of shame and humiliation”, lay not so much in the military defeats and conquests as in the psychological and intellectual spillover effects. Before, the Chinese intelligentsia had always seen conquerors as barbarians who might have been superior in military terms but whose material and intellectual inferiority to Chinese civilization was unquestionable. In the wake of its defeats in the two Opium Wars, China realized that it faced an unprecedented historic challenge. Yet, the reasons behind China’s defeat were considered mainly technological; thus the solution was thought to be a better navy and improved weapons. The slogan, which held true for Mao’s China and continues to hold true today, is: modernization to the greatest extent possible in order to preserve the Chinese state and culture. In other words, changes necessitated by practical challenges are only accepted as long as they do not affect the core of the system.

Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. The Middle Kingdom was transformed into a Communist dictatorship. Chinese policy, however, has come a long way in the last fifty years. While Stalin was a real father figure for Mao, Khrushchev was simply a distant cousin. After Mao’s death, China began dismantling the ideological and economic walls built around it. During the Cold War years, between 1949 and 1989, Sino-European relations were shaped by ideological opposition as much as by the two sides’ links with the superpowers. The relationship between NATO member countries and China was primarily defined by US foreign policy. Accordingly, relations are best described as icy until 1971, when US-Chinese relations were normalized (and even started improving). From that point on, Europe made advances towards China, remaining careful not to upset its sensitive links with the Soviet Union. China wished to amend ties with Europe to bypass the US embargo, and later, in the ’70s and ’80s, to gain access to European civilian and military technology as well as to reinforce its position vis-à-vis the Soviets.

From the 1970s, political and economic ties developed steadily. European countries re-established diplomatic representations in China, which pursued the policy of the “Three Worlds”. In the Three Worlds theory Europe belonged to the Second World, the middle element between the two superpowers of the First World and the developing countries of the Third World. The aim was to align Europe against the Soviet Union. But the huge political and ideological gap between China and Europe was a natural obstacle to such strategic cooperation. Later, economic reforms turned China’s attention to Eastern European countries, whose new economies were more similar to its own than Western Europe’s. Nonetheless, China did recognize the danger that Eastern European economic reforms and Gorbachev’s perestroika posed to its political system. The increasingly close relations between China and Europe were cut off abruptly with the Tiananmen Square shootings in 1989. Europe was hoping that China would soon follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union and Eastern European regimes and the Communist system would dismantle. These sweeping political changes came as a shock . Once again, Europe and China became estranged. But the wounds healed rapidly and relations warmed up soon. The handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and of Macau in 1999 were symbolic. While China negotiated these handovers with the UK and Portugal, trade talks were conducted with the European Union. The years that followed marked a meteoric rise in trade relations. The EU became China’s number one trading partner and vice versa. But the biggest leap forward was that China relaxed its ideological rigidity as it entered the mainstream of global capitalism squaring the circle and reconcile capitalism and free markets with autocracy. In modern China, especially among the most dynamic social class of entrepreneurs, economic capitalism is no longer an obscene word; it is rather a model to imitate, the key to prosperity and progress.

Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.

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East Asia

Historical Issue of Comfort Women and How It Remains a Thorn in Japan – South Korea Relations

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Captured comfort women. Image source: Wikipedia

Japan and South Korea are the neighboring states who are just 50 kilometers apart from each other from Tsushima to Iki Island, separated by the Korea strait. What binds these 2 countries together is not only that they are allies of United States but also that they face a constant threat from North Korea and their shared history from the pre–World War 2 era.

The first attempt to invade Korea occurred between 1592-1598.  This was unsuccessful due to the death of Tenotomy Hideyoshi leaving Japan with no clear leadership. The successful invasion of Korea at the hands of Japan can be traced back to 1876 with the Japan Korea treaty. The agreement forced the opening of three Korean ports to Japanese commerce, destroyed Korea’s position as China’s protectorate, extended extraterritorial rights to Japanese people, and was unfairly signed under duress. In the successive years the two sides signed 3 more treaties, the Japan Korea Treaty of 1905 (by which Korea became a protectorate of Japan), the Japan Korea Treaty of 1907 (by which Korea was deprived of the administration of internal affairs) and lastly the Japan Korea Treaty of 1910 by which Japan formally annexed Korea. (Lay, E-International Relations, 2018 ) From then until 15 August 1945 Korea remained under the Japanese occupation suffering humiliation from its hand.

The origins of the phrase “comfort women” can be found in Korea during King Sejong’s reign in the fifteenth century. According to history, comfort stations got their start in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), when the Japanese Imperial Army set up army brothels so that its men could purchase sex. When the Japanese Army was stationed in Siberia (1918–1925), then-Russia, after the Russian Revolution, brothels were built at each of the barracks, where troops could go on the weekends for recreation. Although the Meiji government had passed a law known as the “Emancipation of Prostitutes” in 1872, prostitution was still seen as legal under police oversight. Young women from rural regions, mostly the daughters of subsistence farmers, became victims of trafficking and were made to work in brothels in urban areas. They were the ones that were assigned to a comfort station on the battlefield.

 The comfort women issue can be seen first coming into light in 1944, when allied forces liberated Japanese captured territory of Burma. Japanese Prisoner of War Interrogation Report 49 described the seizure of two Japanese comfort station proprietors and twenty Korean comfort women from Burma. The report claimed that Japanese soldiers tricked Korean women into serving as comfort women. 

Origin of Koreans as comfort women

One finds the mentions of military “comfort stations,” as early 1932. These stations, where sexual needs of Japanese soldiers were fulfilled under official control, were present both in Japan and in other sites of Japanese deployment, till the end of the Pacific War in 1945. Japan chose to utilize Korean women as sex laborers while encouraging Japanese women to marry young and have many children to achieve “the national purpose of motherhood”. Many Chongsindae women were recruited with the false promise of excellent pay for their labor in these institutions and subsequently transported to the military comfort station, despite the fact that others volunteered to work in industries and clinics. Typically, women from low-income households are the first to be taken advantage of in order to satiate the allegedly insatiable sexual desires of males who possess riches, weapons, or power. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Japanese imperial troops chose to target women from low-income, rural households during their “slave hunt” operations. The majority of these women were conscripted under the auspices of that organization, the word Chongsindae has come to be understood in Korea as “military comfort women.” While the official word is Ilbonkun wianbu (comfort women for the Japanese military), South Koreans today commonly refer to the surviving “comfort women” as Chodngsindae halmoni (grandmothers). (Soh, 1996). Another reason why Korean women were abducted as comfort women was that while the majority of Korean comfort women were “young and naive,” the majority of Japanese comfort women were “middle-aged, had been prostitutes before they were enlisted, and some suffered from sexual illnesses. (Akane, 2015) As a result, the army doctors’ council recommended in 1939 that “Korean women be brought to the battlefield” and that “the younger a prostitute the better her quality.” Elderly women were not suitable presents for the imperial army and it needed to think twice before bringing in amoral prostitutes,

When in 1931 Japan’s army invaded China and the soldiers raped and killed tens of thousands of Chinese women in Nanjing, Japan started enlisting Korean women in full force. The Japanese army at the time employed Japanese “comfort women,” most of whom had been professional prostitutes in the past and some of whom had venereal illnesses. The military leadership proposed that the government recruit unmarried young women from colonial Korea as “comfort women” for the Japanese army to stop the spread of disease (Hayashi, 2008) and stop sexual crimes by Japanese soldiers against the women of the occupied territories. These women would be assumed to be virgins as per the Confucian culture where it is shameful to engage in premarital sex and thus making these Korean women free of sexually transmitted diseases.

There were 2 types of comfort women as well. One group consisted of women who were recruited and conscripted by, or with the support of, the highest levels of the Japanese military and other branches of the Japanese government including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Home Ministry was also engaged in operations to move comfort women discreetly from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan to mainland China and to key battlefronts of the Pacific War. (Lay, The Origins and Implementation of the Comfort Women System, 2018) . All of the comfort women from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan were considered citizens of Japan. Because Korea and Taiwan were seen as being a part of Japan, the national government saw the comfort women from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan as carrying out a patriotic duty by aiding Japan’s war effort. (Lay, The Origins and Implementation of the Comfort Women System, 2018) In fact, women were “coaxed into delivering sexual services to soldiers so as to assist increase their morale and win the war for the welfare of the country.” Koreans and Taiwanese were significantly more trusted by the Japanese authorities than other non-Japanese ethnic groups. In the last stages of the conflict, several of them died alongside soldiers on the front lines. (Koizumi, 2001)

Officially, the Ministry of Defense of Japan was in charge of the second batch of comfort women. Japanese military troops stationed in conquered regions occasionally kidnapped or otherwise forced on-site these women into service. These women were not Japanese (i.e., Korean, Taiwanese, or Japanese) subjects, and instead of being seen as carrying out a national duty, they were seen as “spoils of war” and treated as such. The Japanese military commander in charge of a particular region might direct the hiring of local women to act as comfort women. The majority of Chinese, Dutch, Indonesian, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Filipina women were recruited into the comfort women system in these circumstances. (CHANG, 2009)

Contemporary relevance

It cannot be claimed that no one in Japan knew there were comfort ladies available throughout the war, those who went to battle were aware of their existence. But there was hardly any understanding of the situation as a societal issue. People who were interested in Japan-Korean relations widely understood that comfort women existed and that their experiences were the cruelest consequences of Japan’s invasion of Korea starting about 1910. However, the victims were merely considered to be historical figures. With the discovery and publishing of documents from the Japanese Self-Defense Agency’s library (Wikipedia, n.d.) by Yoshimi Yoshiaki it was thus confirmed that Japanese army and the state was involved in comfort women recruitment and their usage. Since 1951 Japan started to resolve the comfort women issue and after 14 years of back and forth with South Korea it was finally able to sign a treaty. According to the treaty Japan compensated South Korea in the following ways: $300 million grant in economic aid, $200 million in loans together with $300 million in loans for private trust, a total of $800 million as “reparation fee” that Japan paid for their illegal occupation.

In the 1980s, the issue of comfort women in the Japanese military first came to light. Prior to the 1980s, the majority of war-related literature produced in Japan dealt on Japanese suffering, such as that experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as with American airstrikes against Japanese cities. However, the 1982 history textbook controversy, in which the Ministry of Education ordered the removal of any allusions to Japanese aggression and crimes from history textbooks, had a significant influence on Japan. Other Asian nations such as China & South Korea expressed harsh condemnation, and many Japanese were made aware of the type and scope of Japanese aggression during the war. (Hayashi, 2008)There were a number of military veterans who started speaking more candidly about their prior deeds caused more focus on this issue.

With the return of democracy in South Korea the comfort women issue again started gaining momentum and thus Kim Hak-sun became the first to come out in August 1991 to share her tale, after the Japanese government denied that the state was involved, and rejected requests for apologies and compensation, in a June 1991 Diet session. Thus, a group of surviving women, breaking decades of quiet, launched a class-action lawsuit against the Japanese government, bringing the topic of comfort women (Lynch, n.d.) to the attention of the world. The ladies and those who supported them filed a lawsuit seeking damages for alleged violations of human rights. Under criticism from the public, the Japanese government acknowledged its involvement in the scandal and in 1994 and established the public-private Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) to pay former comfort women. The money was also utilized to put out the official Japanese account of the situation. Former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama presented a signed apology to 61 Korean, 13 Taiwanese, 211 Filipino, and 79 Dutch former comfort women. (Wikipedia, n.d.).Since the Asian Women’s Fund was established by the Japanese government but its funding came from private donations rather than government funding, the compensation was not “official,” which is why many former Korean comfort women refused the payments out of principle. In the end, 141 former Korean comfort women received funding from the Korean government, while 61 former Korean comfort women accepted 5 million yen (about $42,000) each from the AWF along with the written apology.

 In 2004, the Japanese Minister of Education said it would be preferable to stop mentioning Japanese crimes like the comfort women system. A mention of Korean forced labor was essentially eliminated from junior high school history textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education in April 2005 for use starting in 2006. Additionally, “comfort women” is no longer mentioned in textbooks. (Scarbrough, 2008)The Ministry of Education, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the right-leaning media pressured the media to substantially reduce mention of Japanese aggression and atrocities overall. (Hayashi, 2008) With the response of PM Abe when asked about the comfort women existence and the consequent reexamining of the Japanese findings by Yoshihide Suga in 2014 and again sticking to the findings reported in 2007 made the issue worsen up. Further the 2019 statement by the Ministry of Foreign affairs of Japan stating that the term “sex slaves” is misleading and thus should not been used caused much anger.

Why does the issue continue to remain a thorn

Japan’s efforts to deal with the past got off to a bad start soon after World War II. (Kosuke, 2022) The U.S. occupation troops swiftly freed Emperor Hirohito of culpability for the war, notably any personal moral responsibility as the country’s wartime leader. Even rightwing leaders such as Sasakawa Ryoichi and Kodama Kiyoshi, as well as Kishi Nobusuke, the minister of business and industry under Tojo Hideki’s martial rule, were all freed. To add to that the electing of Nobusuke Kishi as PM of Japan gave a strong signal about the stance of Japan on the issue of comfort women.

 There is a back on forth on Japan’s stance at the issue as well. Japan needs to come to a decision that whether comfort women were a reality.  For instance, former Japanese PM Tomiichi Murayama & Kiichi Miyazawa along with Japanese Chief Government Spokesman Koichi Kato & Shinsuke Sugiyama Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs apologized for the comfort women issue, but then former PM like Shinzo Abe & Yoshihide Suga deny the comfort women’s existence. This makes Japan’s stance on the issue very unclear and therefore making the issue to come to an end difficult.

Many Japanese believe they have apologized and expressed regret enough. More than a few Japanese have attempted to atone in some way for the crimes committed by their ancestors, (Shibata, 2017) despite the fact that South Korea, China, and other countries waived war reparations and Tokyo has no legal obligation to compensate war victims including forced laborer and comfort women. (Takahashi, 2008) since apart from China none of the countries who received reparations were signatory to the San Francisco agreement, yet Japan paid Korea thrice in the form of Asian Women Fund, the reparation as per the 1965 treaty and the 2015 agreement.

The compensation also acts as a disagreement between the two sides. As mentioned above that Japan had paid compensation in the 1965 treaty, through Asian Women Fund set up in 1995 and then again in 2015 after the talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. But in all the three cases the compensation has failed. Japan thinks that South Korea is robbing them since the compensation it had agreed upon in the 1965 treaty should have been the only compensation which it had to pay and it not their fault that Park Chung-hee administration did not give the money to the victims rather used it for developmental activities throughout the country. The Japanese state that they had offered the Chung-hee government to pay the victims themselves but it was he who decided to take the amount on a lump sum and thus Japan should not be blamed for his actions. This was confirmed in 2005 when Korean government had released the details of the treaty. The Asian Women fund was another way of compensation even though the Japanese government did not directly contribute to it yet the organization was founded by them and therefore the compensation which the victims were receiving through it should have closed the matter once and for all but it did not end there. In 2015 Japan paid compensation money to the victims after the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Seventh and Eighth Periodic Reports. Therefore, Japan feels that with every change in government there is a new treaty which is only a way to get money out from the pockets of Japan and it is not Japan’s fault that the existing governments of Korea does not take in the viewpoints of the victims, or there is a governmental change, or the money is not reaching the victims as Japan does its part on the issue.

From South Korea’s point of view, it feels that Japan is not doing much. It feels that Japan’s apology has not been serious in the first place even though former Japanese PM’s have sent out written apology as well as have apologized in the South Korean National Assembly. Also, the fact that former prisoner of wars such as Nobusuke Kishi and Japanese emperor Hirohito were not brought into account for the crimes they did rather were set free by US in order to better control Japan hurts them till this day.

The problem is not only with the government but also with who is running it in case of South Korea. While the military dictatorship ruled over South Korea it wanted to have a close relation with Japan in order to develop the country better and also due to pressure from US who had its own vested interest to control the spread of communism in the east. With the democratization of the nation the view changed and as South Korea gained military and economic strength it started to look Japan in the eye. Even in the democratic rule the stance of the leaders is very different and every successive leader deal in a different manner in order to gain support of the people since the issue is highly politicized.

Another issue within South Korea is the corruption within the government and how the handle the funds given to it by Japan for the comfort women. Since 1965 the funds given to the comfort women have rather been redirected for the development of the country or the victims have not received them fully. Also, the fact that the reparations are being given by the government of Korea and not by the Japanese government is another reason why the former comfort women did not take up the reparations which were offered by Asian Women fund.  (Framing the Comfort Women: Non-governmental organizations and the United Nations framing the issue from 2008 till 2018, 2020)

Along with the money the apology is another reason why South Korea is not letting go of the reason. As mentioned above that the comfort women are highly politicized. Even though 2 former Japanese PM’s have apologized in oral and written manner the fact that their successive PM’s have denied the existence of comfort women washes away all the efforts made and makes the wounds anew for the country and the sufferers. Since the state of Japan does not have a clear stand on the issue the back and forth makes Korea feel that its being mocked. Thus, making the issue to keep going on.

 The involvement of China also complicates the issue as South Korea has an alternative to Japan and currently Beijing is not seen as a threat thus allowing Korea to have an upper hand and let the issue to linger on. Closer relations with China are possible as the two nations bond over the mutual suffering they have shared at the hands of imperial Japanese army and also due to the past relationship between the two countries which has been there since centuries where China has always acted as an elder brother to Korea. Another reason why Seoul is closer to Beijing is that it feels that the only solution to the Korean peninsula issue can come through China as China has close relations with DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea)

Conclusion

 President Park has encouraged a patriotic mentality at home that presented South Korea as being strong on Japan by insisting that Japan first solve historical concerns with its annexation of Korea more than 100 years ago. Since then, South Korea has built museums and sculptures honoring its comfort women not just in South Korea but also in numerous Korean-dominated areas of the US, like Glendale, California. Political reconciliation is very unlikely in these circumstances since China is able to successfully push a gap between these two countries.

The two countries had a chance of reconciliation on the matter in 2015. In addition to being the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, 2015 also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties between South Korea and Japan but sadly nothing much on this issue could happen. The Japanese PM Shinzo Abe did expresses “deep remorse over the past war,” but stopped short of offering apologies. He offered “eternal condolences” to US victims of the Second World War, but he did not explicitly apologize for the comfort women issue and only alluded to it by stating, “Armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most.” (Akaha, GlobalAsia, 2015)

The recent developments have further severed the possibility of the resolution of the issue. With the Korean court ordering the government of Japan to pay 100 million Won over the money it paid in 2015 agreement to settle the issue it sure looks like exploitation. Further ordering  Japanese companies like Mitsubishi to pay and seizing of Japanese companies assets due to the refusal of Japan to pay the extra money just goes on to show that the issue is not going to be resolved soon as Japan says that through the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Relating to Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation, (Wikipedia, n.d.) the matter has already been fully and entirely resolved but Korea is adamant on its stand that A real settlement would come if the victims can forgive, after Japan makes a sincere apology and takes other actions.  Thus, showing that the two sides are poles apart not looking to back down.

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Challenges faced by Japan to become a permanent member of UNSC

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Abstract: Through this report I will be addressing the challenges faced by Japan to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This idea was first floated by Japan on the world stage in 2004 when the then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in his UN General Assembly speech outlined how Japan wanted to become a member and contribute to global security and world peace. Internally with the economic boom of the Japanese economy and the successful development of the country it was felt that Japan should now challenge for the permanent membership of the UNSC, but the factions within the LDP and especially those who support the pacifist nature of Japan do not wish for the country becoming a permanent member of UNSC. Japan in the late 90s and early 2000s has already become one of the largest contributors to the United Nations and other regional and multilateral groupings it even had sent it forces in the UN peace keeping missions and was an active ally of the United States supporting its every decision and contributing either through its military or through economic aid thus helping them earn the phrase “a bank with a flag”. It was the idea of the so-called realist hawks who wanted this idea to become a reality. In this following report I argue the challenges faced by Japan which is still acting as an impediment in its quest for a permanent seat in UNSC.

Background

Japan has steadily worked at obtaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for more than three decades (UNSC). Unfortunately, a variety of local and international obstacles have prevented it from realizing its long-standing goal. Japan has prioritized “UN-centered” diplomacy as a cornerstone of its foreign policy since its admission to the UN in 1956. As Japan became a global economic giant in the 1970s, it was expected to take on a bigger role within the UN system. Since the latter part of the 1980s, when Japan reached its economic zenith and its people felt the need for a “total Japan” contribution to world peace and prosperity, the country has been driven to become a real power player in international politics by becoming one of the select few privileged countries with veto rights at the UNSC. At this time, Japan also overtook the United States as the largest net giver of official development assistance (ODA), which improved Tokyo’s reputation among recipient nations all over the world. Tokyo came to the conclusion that winning a permanent seat on the UNSC should be the next step in gaining greater respect from the international community since it would give Japan more influence over creating a new international order. Many people said that the UN’s structure and operations needed to be changed immediately after the Cold War ended in order for it to become a vibrant organization fulfilling the primary goal for which it was formed.

However, there was no consensus on the method of such reforms among the actual actors or even those outside of international politics. Tokyo considered it acceptable to press for its desire to be recognized as a permanent member of the UNSC as various sectors of international society began to focus on various parts of the UN. Japan tried to convince others of the benefits of allowing Tokyo to play a significant role during the late 1980s and early 1990s—a pivotal moment for the UN. From a critical standpoint, it is nearly universally acknowledged that since its founding in 1945, the UNSC has grown more and more unrepresentative. The P5 (World War Two winner states) are a self-declared oligarchy that crafted the UN Charter to ensure their respective elevated positions. With the 9/11 attack and the US and West’s focus now on the global war against terror Japan thought it was the right time to pitch in this idea of becoming a permanent member of UNSC.

It was in 2004 when Japan formally expressed its interest to become a member of UNSC. In a speech delivered at the General Assembly on September 21, 2004, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi highlighted Japan’s intention to join the Security Council as a permanent member, saying that Japan’s commitment to global peace and security was a solid enough justification for membership.

Outside Challenges

Japan as a nation might lack hard power due to the Article 9 of its constitution which has the “No war” clause, but in terms of soft power Japan is a serious competitor. Given its non-military pacifist posture and the new realities of globalization, Japan views its soft power as the sole way available to exercise global influence. Soft power is linked to Japan’s long-term goal in the international community of promoting civil society, with its human and social resources. Japan is also an active supporter of peace and security missions of US though its troops do not participate in military actions but rather participate as logistic support and other non-action related activities. Although the nature of these factors varies, worldwide populations turned off by “hard power” and the “abuse of power” thus view Japan as a role model that is unique from the US and other Western countries and want it to be represented in the UNSC. Britain has previously pledged to support G4 alliance aspirations among the current P5 countries (Japan, Germany, India and Brazil). The European Union has refrained from expressing its position, despite France having expressed support for Japan’s application for a permanent seat on the UNSC. Russian resistance appears to have subsided over time, and it has no intention of opposing the veto rights of future UNSC members. However, many people continue to passionately oppose Japan’s mission, primarily its Asian neighbors. Recently, China has stepped up its opposition to Japan’s request. Furthermore, the proposed G4 reform plans leave more than 1.2 billion Muslims without any permanent representation on the UNSC, making this subject very contentious and harming the UN’s reputation in the Middle East’s flashpoints as well as among Muslims. The first significant effort against a proposed SC expansion was the “Uniting for Consensus” group, which was led by Pakistan, South Korea, and Italy. The majority alliance suggested increasing non-permanent membership to 20 members, however the unaltered five-nation permanent line-up to remain unchanged. Washington has categorically rejected the G4 proposal, essentially blocking Japan’s candidacy for permanent membership in the UNSC. From an American perspective, Japan’s formation of the G4 alliance for backing wide expansionist policies on the Council made the US “uncomfortable” and diminished Washington’s support for Tokyo’s application to become a permanent member.

Another problem for Japan is how the world perceives its contribution to the UN. The term “chequebook diplomacy” is used to show Japan’s contribution in the global order which is a misperception. The main cause of this misconception is that Japan’s international position has, up until now, mostly been decided by its bilateral connections (especially security arrangements) with the US, meaning that the US has an influence over its UN diplomacy. Because of this, some people think that adding Japan as a permanent member would only give the US another voice on the Council and not alter the power dynamic.

Another hurdle or one might even tip it towards Japan’s favor would the fact that Japan is not a nation which possesses nuclear weapon while the current permanent members of the UNSC are all those nations which possess nuclear weapons. This gives Japan both an edge and a disadvantage in its bid for permanent membership in the UNSC. While the advantage is that if Japan succeeds to become a permanent member it might become the only nation which not only has an active army but rather has a self-defense force unlike the current existing member countries. This is also a tremendous achievement considering that Japan is surrounded by hostile enemies around it in the form of North and South Korea and China who not only object to Japan’s membership but also at times have test fired weapons close to the Japanese shores or are currently in a dispute in the South China sea.  With the hostile neighbors who oppose Japan due to its colonial past and still feel that Japan might act as an aggressor once it joins the UNSC acts as another hurdle to the Japanese membership.

A new trend which can be see as another hurdle to Japanese membership can be in the case of how no representation is to be seen in the G4 and in the permanent membership of UNSC from the continents of Africa and Middle east. While there is ample representation seen from the west these two places find no representation in either the G4 or the UNSC. This seriously raises the issue that a) neither any Muslim country representation is there and b) there is no continental representation for Africa. This also adds to the Japanese misery that South Africa which is another peaceful, economically well off and most importantly a democratic country like Japan and home of one of the most prominent leaders of 21st century does not get a representation.

The middle east which as a region is a) most prominent for world powers due to the rich energy resources it possesses b) has rich economies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait finds no representation. With the ongoing Ukraine- Russia crisis and the global energy crisis it is important that this region gets representation in the UNSC. This also solves the crisis of no Muslim nation finding a representation in the UNSC since these countries are majority Islamic nations.  

Another contentious issue is the veto power given to the Permanent Members. Although they have stated they won’t use it until it is reviewed a few years down the road, the G-4 does not completely nullify the veto power for new permanent members. The African Group, however, is still adamant that the new members have complete veto power, which has in the past blocked reform proponents from coming to an agreement. The United Kingdom and several others agree with France’s demand for a voluntary suspension of the veto in circumstances of mass crimes. However, the United States is opposed to veto reform. China and Russia oppose limiting their ability to veto. Since extended permanent members are likely to be directly or indirectly involved in many of these crises, having too many permanent members with veto power may actually hinder the UN’s ability to deal with issues in many different regions of the world. Therefore, even if Japan becomes a member of the UNSC it would be moot considering how diluted the council might become if the set considerations are not met.

Internal Challenges

Japan is a constitutional republic, yet the bureaucracy has a significant impact on decision-making, to the point that officials in several ministries write and review legislation this acts as a burden for Japan in its bid in the permanent membership of UNSC. Japan is a pacifist country meaning that it believes that war and violence is unjustifiable. After the devastation faced by Japan in the World War 2 and the drafting of its constitution many within the country believe that Japan should refrain from wars. This pacifist constitution coupled with the way the various factions of LDP think and the opposition party possess a strong resistance internally for Japan to join UNSC. With the rise of revisionism in Japan and with people like Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe coming to power the revisionist stance about joining the UNSC and changes in the constitution with a specific focus to the Article 9 can be seen. Previously we have seen how there are substantial efforts to change the interpretation of the Article 9 but they all have been shot down by the opposition and factions of LDP. Factions like Heisei Kenkyūkai, Shikōkai, Kōchikai and Shisuikai and opposition parties like Rikken-minshutō, Nippon Ishin no Kai, Nihon Kyōsan-tō, Reiwa Shinsengumi, Shakai Minshu-tō and Minshutō make it very difficult for Japan to bring changes to the Article 9 and further up its bid in the UNSC.

Conclusion

The above listed challenges pose a real threat to Japanese bid to become a permanent member of the UNSC. As it’s said that charity begins at home so is in the case of Japan as well. Japan needs to ensure that every faction of the ruling LDP as well as the opposition parties come to a consensus about Japan joining the UNSC and changing its pacifist constitution. While trends can be seen towards people demanding a change in the constitution as found in the media polling such as Asahi Shimbun Polling which reported that “the gap between those who opposed and those who favored revision shrank to 3 percent, with 46 percent opposed and 43 percent in favor.” If such trends continue and with the continued (Council on Foreign Relations, n.d.) threats posed by China and North Korea are felt by the population of Japan coupled with a charismatic leader like the current PM Fumio Kishida, Japan would be able to change the pacifist Article 9 which would allow the country to come on an equal platform along with other G4 countries further allowing them to finish the pacifist era of post-world war Japan and allowing Japan to reach new heights.

On the global level as well once the internal issue of Article 9 is solved Japan would be allowed to contribute its forces to fight in the UN Peacekeeping missions rather than just sending them for humanitarian aid or logistical support. This would also in a way help diminish the idea of Japan being a “bank with a flag” at the global stage.

While to counter the image of Japan being under the umbrella of Washington, Japan has to start distancing itself from the shadow of US as it is harming Japan’s image at the global level further prohibiting its international relations in many ways. While the Japanese passport is the most powerful passport in the world sadly the Japanese diplomacy is not the strongest and this can be seen as Japan only has bilateral relations with the UN member states which are seriously getting harmed by Japan siding with US as was seen in the 1973 oil crisis where Japan also suffered due to its decision to side with united states in its support for Israel. This has also led to the fact that some countries like Russia apposing new additions to the permanent council as it says it’s going to corrode the powers of the permanent council. Also, the tag that Tokyo is under Washington’s umbrella due to its influence on Japan’s decision making also limits the support for Japan in its bid. Countries like Russia and China are therefore skeptical of allowing Japan. Thus, PM Fumio Kishida and his successors need to become more independent and have to create a separate identity for the nation which is not that difficult considering the soft power of Japan. As per the BBC’ World Service poll 2021 only the nation of China and Pakistan are the two where there is more than 30% negative perception of Japan.

As for the expansion of the G4 and representation from continents of Africa and South America is concerned there is not much that Japan can do in this case. While there is representation for Asia in the form of China these 2 continents are the world’s emerging economies and do deserve a representation to make UN more representable which was not the case when UN was formed. In all in such a scenario the only thing which Japan can do is to keep on continuing with its cheque book diplomacy coupled with its soft power capability garnering more interest in its favor and turning the countries who currently oppose its entry into its favor like South Korea, Italy and Pakistan or the Uniting Consensus Group.

The claim for a Muslim nation from the middle east becoming a member of permanent council is a vague claim as an organization like UN is not a platform for the promotion of any religion rather it is an organization which works to promote world peace which does not require a religious angel to it.

Lastly, the backyard of Japan is never going to support its bid in the UNSC and nothing can change that reality. No amount of economic aid or soft power can counter this as the war crimes committed by Japan during the World War era are still very much etched in people’s memory. As per the BBC’ World Service poll 2021 China has a 71% negative opinion of Japan, South Korea has a 20% negative opinion and Russia has a 7% negative opinion about Japan. While this is an improvement from 2017 standards Japan still has a long way to cover in order to join the UNSC and it needs to start working on it internally only then should it focus on the external issues.

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Territorial Disputes Between Russia and Japan: Will They Ever End?

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Russia and Japan have had a long history fraught with tensions over issues of power and domicile. The First Russo-Japanese war was fought from 1904 to 1905, when Russia backed out from its understanding with the Japanese, to remove military presence from Manchuria and de-escalate tensions over territorial expansion. The Japanese attacked the Russian naval base at Port Arthur. Post the battle of Tsushima, in 1905, the Treaty of Portsmouth was drawn up with mediation of US President Roosevelt, according to which Russia reneged on its expansionist objectives regarding East Asia, and allowed for Japanese imperialism to spread over the Chinese mainland and the Korean peninsula.

After the second world war, from all the major powers of the world, these two were the ones unable to formally adhere to any treaty prescribing the normalisation of bilateral relations . A key point of contention in this ever going conflict is the matter of the rightful domicile of the four islands in the Sea of Japan region- Kunashiri, Shikotan, Etorufu and Habomais, collectively known as the ‘Southern Kuril’ islands in Russia, and ‘northern territories’ in Japan .

Even predating the first Russo-Japanese war, territorial disputes between the two began as early as 1855, when the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was entered into between the Japanese and Russian Empires in Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture, on which the treaty was named. This treaty allowed for the imports and exports of goods on the Japanese ports of Nagasaki, Shimoda, and Hakodate. In addition, the line designating the border between the two was established on the line between Etorofu and Urup. According to an additional clause, the island of Sakhalin (or Karafuto) would remain “unpartitioned” Another pact in 1875, gave Japan the opportunity to exchange 18 Kuril Island territories for the Sakhalin region under Russian control. Apart from the sense of strategic security these islands bring, the sea surrounding them continues to remain of great economic importance to the marine and fishing industry.

In 1941, amid the second World War , Japan and the Soviet Union signed the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact in April, which asked both parties to observe non-aggressive behaviour towards each other. In the Yalta conference held in 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin reached a consensus that “the Soviet Union shall enter into war against Japan” on condition that “the southern part of Sakhalin as well as the islands adjacent to it shall be returned to the Soviet Union” and that “the Kuril Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union.” The San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed in the aftermath of the Second World War, according to which Japan was supposed to renounce all claim to the Kuril islands as well as the part of Sakhalin they had claimed through the treaty of 1875.

In 1956, Japan and the USSR came to an understanding aiming to cease all war aggression towards each other and restore their diplomatic and trade ties via a declaration of peace. This declaration became important as it was the foundation based on which future negotiations over territorial sovereignty would take place and is still taking place till now. Article 9 of the Joint Declaration stated that the Soviet Union “agrees to transfer to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan, [with] the actual transfer of these islands to Japan to take place after the conclusion of a Peace Treaty.”

During the period of the Cold War, Stalin refused to entertain any possible discussion regarding the disputed land. Nikita Khruschev, however, offered up the islands of Shikotan and Habomai to the Japanese, in an attempt to sway them away from the influence of the USA, however this did not materialise due to American intervention.  However, this did not sour budding diplomatic ties between USSR and Japan, but at the same time, there wasn’t much progress or regression either. Perhaps the USSR, became too focused on America and its most powerful and strategic allies and Japan, in the course of this, became an afterthought. In the decades before the Soviet disintegration, USSR remained firm in its stance of a territorial dispute not even having justifiable grounds, and claimed that these islands were rightfully part of their territory. The Soviet Union declared the matter no longer a viable topic of negotiation citing the outcomes of the Yalta Agreement (February 11, 1945), the Cairo Declaration (November 27, 1943), the Potsdam Proclamation (July 26, 1945; accepted by Japan on August 14, 1945) and the San Francisco Peace Treaty (September 8, 1951) in which Japan renounced south Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. From the Japanese perspective,  the  Yalta agreement is illegitimate as Japan, the main party concerned was not a participant in this understanding between the Allied powers – the US, UK and the Soviet Union . The Japanese then, in retaliation,  again started building closer networks with the Americans.

It was only when Mikhael Gorbachev gained power that the Soviet State acknowledged the existence of such a dispute. Through negotiations with the Japanese, Gorbachev aimed to rebuild the soviet economy by laterally also discussing economic partnerships with the Japanese. This, in Boris Yeltsin’s time, was something that was faced with a lot of domestic resistance, and he could only bring the matter of a few islands of the Northern Kuriles to the table. Soon after, resistance on the Soviet front grew, and the talks were unfruitful. Thus, fresh from disintegration, the new Russian state now, instead focused on building an alliance with a party more aligned with its strategic interests: China.

By the dawn of the new millennium, the heads of state of both Moscow and Tokyo, Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Hashimoto, both weary of the actions of their traditional allies (China and the USA), once again embarked on an attempt to strengthen ties by resolving this territorial dispute. The Japanese proposed the handover of the Kurile territories in exchange for offering economic assistance, which once again did not find many takers within Russia, and negotiations once again broke down. In 2003, Japan’s Prime Minister and Putin gave their approval to a ten-point “action plan” with agendas not limited to bilateral ties and territorial dispute resolution. Since then, Japan and Russia have increased cooperation on a number of fronts, including fishing, shipbuilding, and other marine activities. Another reason why Japan stays interested in maintaining peaceful ties with Russia is because of the hugely lucrative opportunities for Japanese tech firms in Russia.

Another major impediment on the path to progress was when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The Japanese publicly denounced Russia and urged its economic partner to adhere to the ways of a rules based world order. It suspended “consultation for easing visa regulations” and froze “negotiations of a new investment agreement.” Later that year, at the Asia Pacific Economic Summit in Beijing, Shinzo Abe  and Vladmir Putin once again sat at the negotiation table to revive bilateral ties.

Japan’s previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in an attempt to revive bilateral cooperation, proposed an eight-point economic cooperation plan, which had the ultimate objective of resolving the territorial dispute. It seemed like an integral move to make sure that Japan remains a key player in East Asia, in the face of deepening Sino-Russian ties.

Once again, the ongoing Ukraine Crisis has proved to be a dealbreaker in any possible negotiations that could have taken place between Russia and Japan regarding the Northern Territories or Kurile Islands, as Japan publicly condemned Russia once again for its ruthless invasion of Ukraine in a G7 meeting in early 2022. Currently, Russia, with Putin as head of state, is already agitated and overdrawn due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its repercussions, and the condemning punitive actions it is at the receiving end of by NATO and its allies. Similarly, it has also expressed its paranoia and need for security by posting naval fleets in the Sea of Japan.

In the long course of history between Japan and Russia, who are bound together by physical proximity, one can see that economic opportunities were always a way to strengthen bilateral ties. In today’s age, Japan has the technology and Russia has the resources, which, if put together, could bring in the next big thing in the energy sector. However, as with many other old territorial disputes, sentiments of national pride are deeply linked to these territories, making it even more difficult to come to a resolution. The people inhabiting the disputed land, too, root for this dispute to end so that they can enjoy the benefits of confirmed political identities. The indigenous people of this territory, the Ainu, had lived in isolation and were undocumented until the twentieth century. The people living on Sakhalin consider themselves stateless, and want to return home. However, given the ongoing and worsening Ukrainian crisis, it does not seem like either Japan or Russia will want to sit at the negotiation table anytime soon, and like many other instances in international relations, this issue too will remain unresolved for a few more years to come.

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