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Contemporary China: Polit-economic, Socio-cultural Challenges & Prospects

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Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, all eyes, yet again, are on China, which many expect, equally enthusiastically and alarmingly, to become the world’s largest economy over the next few decades. The economic growth, though, does not automatically root out all sources of disparity even if it shrinks the overall scope of inequality.

Being almost exactly in the middle on the Gini line between total inequality and full equality at 46.7, mainland Chinese wealth distribution is now more unequal than it has ever been in the nation’s history. This figure is even more startling considering the fact that the country had a very low inequality level in the 1980s, so the Chinese population is fully aware of the problem and its severity. Historically, the peaks of economic disparity have coincided with major national events, especially the Great Famine in the late 1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the global integration that began in the late 1990s. Although the highly centralized and deeply bureaucratic nature of the Chinese government allows for the efficient implementation of inequality solutions, official poverty-reducing policies at such peaks had minimal effects.

In contemporary China, the state of inequality is essentially determined by regional differences and the countrywide urban-rural divide. Kanbur and Zhang [1] claim that the share of heavy industry in gross output values, the degree of decentralization, and the degree of openness are three main driving forces of inequality across regions. The urban-rural divide, on the other hand, is sustained by top-down regulations that affect basic human rights, such as health, housing, and mobility. One of such regulations is hukou, a system of household registration linked to social programs provided by the central government, which assigns social benefits based on the agricultural and non-agricultural residency status. As such, hukou has been a structural source of inequality since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, as urban residents receive benefits, ranging from retirement pensions to healthcare, that are unavailable to rural residents. Chan [2] asserts that to reduce rural poverty is to end hukou, which directly impedes with rural-to-urban migration, the main means of escaping poverty in rural areas. The internal migration, including the interprovincial one from the thinly populated and deprived Western regions to the densely populated and affluent East Coast, has intensely accelerated since the 1980s. Referred to as the ‘floating population,’ rural migrants tend to circulate in-between cities rather than settle, making them in a way statistically invisible. Yet their presence in the urban landscape critically influences workforce and housing markets. Given the unparalleled magnitude of the Chinese population, housing registration, obviously, needs to operate for practical purposes, but not in its current caste-system resembling form.

Furthermore, the government has to instill lawful procedures for assimilating rural emigrants, who, alongside their children, confront serious predicaments in the multidimensional process of urban societal integration. Having crossed 250 million by 2015, the Chinese migrant population is the largest in the world; however, due to official restrictions, especially hukou, the interprovincial migration in China is even more administratively challenging than the state-to-state migration in the United States. These restrictions equally impact children, both who stay behind in rural areas, the so called ‘left-behind children,’ and those who with their parents move to or are born in cities. Liang [3] suggests that further research on the internal migration be devoted to the mobility of minority groups, such as Muslims, and finding out if the importance of hukou is declining for the new generation of migrant workers. Even if this were true, the government is not free from providing additional ameliorating measures for migrants, for example, a cheaper, less complicated way of making remittances to countryside family members and other relatives and food stamps until the job acquisition.

Big companies, in turn, should offer educational enrichment programs to their urban and rural employees to meet the international employment competition. Despite its unchallenged advantage in sheer numbers, the Chinese workforce is relatively weak in terms of education levels, which in long run can create a human capital crisis in mainland China, as the upper secondary school attainment is a crucial ingredient for the country’s continued economic growth. Khor and others [4] estimate that only less than 25% of the Chinese labor force have completed secondary education, a significantly lower figure than around 55% average across all G20 countries. The Ministry of Education pompously inflates official figures. Considering that China is gradually transitioning from an upper middle-income state to a developed economy and that this transition means supplanting low-wage, labor-intensive manufacturing with high-wage, high value-added industries that require knowledgeable cadres, the Ministry of Education is obliged to bring education programs and workplace demands in unison. Lamentably, the government routinely overlooks school attainment levels of its citizens, because service and manufacturing industries, the titans of national employment, hire staff based on discipline indicators and occupational skillsets rather than school performance.

The guiding principle of reforms must be making the Chinese education system more inclusive. Wu and Zhang [5] claim that recent expansions in this field have benefited urban women more than any other social group and that despite an overall increase in educational equality, the urban-rural contrast is ever stark; however, this is in line with the worldwide trend, which shows that educational inequality as a whole is declining with the continued economic growth, but the urban-rural divide permeates in face of modernization. To reduce this divide, the government must rescind educational policies that favor city students, starting with the elimination of standardized testing as an upper secondary school entrance requirement, which highly favors urban over rural students. Having completed superior middle schools and resources to private tutoring, urban students disproportionately beat their rural counterparts out, keeping the cycle of urban-rural divide in education spinning.

Beyond the education system, the government has to transform workplace structures, foremost by substituting danwei, a work unit with communist roots that in the form of ‘organized dependency’ maintains the state administrative hierarchy, with non-state labor unions or guilds. Xie, Lai, and Wu [6] assert that even if some of its original functions, such as housing and health subsidies, have declined with the rise of private sector, danwei continues to play a central role in the social stratification and occupation mobility in post-reform China, influencing earnings (salaries are low in mainland China) more than benefits — a reverse was true in pre-reform China. Not as interested in maximizing occupational profits as in maintaining ties with the ruling authority, danwei stratifies the contemporary Chinese society because of its more equal nature than the market justifies. That is why independent labor unions, which can provide not only similar benefits, such as a health coverage, but also guarantee adequate wages that the current work unit system compromises for the sake of social advantages, ought to overtake danwei.

Another factor hampering the national progress is the Great Firewall, the combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced by the government to regulate the Internet domestically. King, Pan, and Roberts [7] emphasize that as opposed to the popular assumption that any government-critical content is taken down, the Internet censors are actually oriented to the content with a collective action potential, notwithstanding with its underlying attitude towards the government. Yet history, in particular the Great Famine, has shown that the Chinese people, in accordance with the Confucian values, tend to blame not the ruling authority, but local officials for their problems. This, coupled with the fact that a common Chinese online user self-censors, demonstrates that the Internet censorship is an excessive administrative measure. This measure deters the info-communicational advancement of the mainland Chinese population, which lacks a unified intention for the regime change.

Abolishing hukou, danwei, and the Great Firewall schemes, as well as reforming the education system, requires a coordinated national effort between the central government and provincial leaders. The majority of regional officials, though, behave not as much in response to the countrywide market-preserving federalism as within the multidivisional-form structure of the Chinese economic sector. As the political status of a Chinese province directly correlates to its economic power, the post-Mao China witnessed political conformity being largely supplanted by the economic performance as a chief competence-related indicator. Li and Zhou [8] confirm that the local GDP growth rate is directly proportional to the official’s turnover, which is nonlinear due to the effect of performance during tenure as a whole over a single year being more important. Besides promotion as an instrument of personnel control, the ruling government exercises termination, transition, and retirement, for example, successful Chinese officials, whose merits are almost exclusively measured in financial terms, receive honorary, albeit powerless, titles before their official retirements.

The economic performance endures as an effective political tool as long as the Chinese economy continues to grow; however, in light of 6% economic growth rate as the new normal and the ongoing trade war with the United States, securing successful operations of local officials principally through economic incentives seems myopic from the central government. This needs to complement its existing economic leverage in governing localities with more stable social factors, especially given that governors are inclined to artificially boosting financial figures of their provinces. This not only results in distorted reports on living conditions of people, but also in the national prevalence of the economic growth at all costs, which only exacerbates intra-regional inequalities in terms of education and employment prospects. Xie and Zhou [9] note that despite being comparable in both the total area and income distributions as well as the subordination of state/provincial officials to the federal/central government, USA, where a family structure combined with race and ethnicity significantly influences lifetime earnings of every person, has had a smaller rate increase in economic inequality over the last decade than PRC.

Evidently, the Chinese economy is neither laissez-faire nor Leninist, but rather a unique case. Oi [10] claims that the economic growth of China is embedded in the system in which local officials, acting as CEOs, treat local enterprises under administrative control as parts of a larger corporate whole. Accordingly, the national economic growth rests largely on the rural industry, which has experienced an upsurge following a few amendments to the Maoist system, especially de-collectivization of agricultural production and the fiscal reform that allows for the autonomy over any local surplus. To strengthen corporatism in their provinces, officials pursue one of three methods: misappropriating marked funds coming to local farmers from the central government; licensing non-bank credit institutions that avoid central regulations — a more legal way; and granting small loans from bureau funds. Having been long ignored by the central government because of its quintessential role in the Chinese economic expansion, local state corporatism is directly responsible for the accumulation of debts worth $5.8 trillion. This issue is especially problematic in light of the Chinese market leaning more and more towards privatization — a process catapulting a new type of corporate elite into prominence in the midst of this managerial revolution.

Whether the new corporate elite will push the country to approach the capitalist economy model established in free states is a critical question. Walder [11] notes that both economic assets and ties to the central government of this new elite are equivocal, so each sector — state-owned, privatized, transactional, and entrepreneurial — demands to be separately analyzed. Corporate networks mapped via interfirm webs can also point to China’s course moving towards or away from being a state where wealth and political power are synonymous. Arguably, the new corporate elite will maintain close political ties with the ruling government. Alternatively, it can act as a political opposition by challenging the status quo whenever appropriate. The ruling party is absolutely creditable to a degree for the country’s success, but being completely unrestrained, it will fail to perceive overstretched borders of its regulations, including the Great Firewall, as the established framework is self-damagingly hostile to change. The new corporate elite has a potential to become a powerful intermediate agent safeguarding the consolidation of the social contract between the Chinese people and state, and it should not miss this exciting chance. Still, where there is the elite, a clash with interests of people is inevitable, and China has yet to match its powerful economic status with a benevolent state image internationally.

Considering Chinese citizens’ rising awareness of universal human rights violations in the country, especially with regard to family and religious domains, both of which an almost uninterrupted nature of the Chinese civilization has substantially burdened by its institutional emphasis on the former and a lack of such emphasis on the latter, the ruling party can no longer afford to ignore its obvious shortcomings in dealing with ethno-linguistic and religious minorities and novel family structures emerging out of the tension between persisting cultural customs and changing social behaviors in the contemporary Chinese society. Raymo and others [12] claim that the second demographic transition, which is characterized by a variety of living arrangements and a disconnection between marriage and procreation, is more conspicuous in the East than in the West. Traditionally, East Asian families are patriarchal, patrimonial, patrilineal, and patrilocal, but the global rise of the women’s socioeconomic status has undermined this organization.

Although women in mainland China have advanced their social status over the last decade, they continue to be disadvantaged in terms of household labor, education, salaries, and leadership positions due to gender bias. For example, parents disproportionately put educational resources in sons at the expense of daughters, as they expect the former to materially support them in their old age and the latter to be taken care of by husbands’ families. Men, on the other hand, face an extreme competition not only in employment, but also in the marriage market. Xie [13] notes that Chinese men find it increasingly difficult to marry partly because of the prevailing social hypergamy exacerbated by present economic pressures. In addition, men massively outnumber women as a result of a higher cultural and economic value assigned to them. Of course, a growing number of single, unemployed men has a socially disruptive potential, but being an authoritarian state with Confucian values, China would be resistant to the gang culture that has eroded Latin America.

Without taking demographic changes into account, the government cannot adequately address such issues as population aging, labor force shortages, public health care, family planning, and retirement arrangements. The rapid pace at which China has been modernizing since its global integration began in the late 90s only intensifies this challenge. Peng [14] states that as the age of first marriage has gone up to twenty-five, the birth rate has dwindled (Japan has the lowest in the Far East), more individuals prefer not to marry (childbearing outside wedlock is still very rare), and more couples choose to cohabitate. China is achieving its second demographic transition in a relatively compressed period of time.

It is ambiguous how official Family Planning Commission programs have influenced this transition.` For example, the One-Child Policy, which the government ended after 35 years, might not have caused a supposed fertility decline in the country given that Chinese families have been naturally leaning towards having two or less children since 1990s. Family policies in general apply differently to urban and rural areas. For instance, while the urban implementation of pensions has lifted an adult’s traditional economic duty to provide for elderly parents, transforming the nature of monetary support from financial to symbolic, this duty remains in force in countryside. Xie and Zhu [15] emphasize that in cities compared to married sons married daughters give more money to their parents contrary to custom. This can be explained by the fact that over the last decade, women have outranked men in educational attainment, bolstering their job income.

Beyond adjusting its family policies to emerging social norms, the government has to offer an integration path for ostracized ethno-linguistic and religious groups. Gladney [16] claims that China, which is home to the largest Muslim minority in East Asia (around 20 million people), has so far failed in incorporating Muslims, whose self-preservation is at risk, in the national fabric in a way that is neither full accommodation nor complete separatism. Obviously, Islam and traditional Chinese beliefs have distinct worldviews. For example, Muslim Chinese evaluate development levels of majority-Muslim countries far more favorably than the Han Chinese do [17], but their co-existence over several centuries means that common ground can be found. Moreover, China’s dependence on the Middle East as an oil supplier and an export market mandates for Muslims’ acceptance in the Chinese ‘leviathan.’

Like religious ones, ethno-linguistic minorities bear discrimination in China. Wu and He [18] state that despite of the regional distribution of ethnic minorities being relatively stable from 1982 to 2005, the Han-minority disparity in education and employment amplified in the same period. After it had started identifying all 55 minorities (around 10% of the national population), which are geographically isolated not just from the Han Chinese but each other, the communist party has taken a few steps to stimulate their socioeconomic mobility, such as granting college admission bonuses. However, the country’s forceful economic transition has widened the gap instead of narrowing it, as the profit-driven private sector values economic efficiency over social equality. That is why the government must pass anti-discrimination laws that will subdue institutional prejudice against ethno-linguistic and religious minorities.

Finally, if the Chinese government makes a conscious decision to contain ever-expanding state machine or apparatus from permeating every aspect of citizens’ daily lives, allowing the society to ‘breath normally,’ it will be able to competently respond to polit-economic and socio-cultural challenges that contemporary China is confronting, such as a slower economic growth rate and elevated ethnic tensions.

References:

[1]Kanbur, R. and Zhang, X. 2005. “Fifty Years of Regional Inequality in China: A Journey through Central Planning, Reform, and Openness.” Review of Development Economics 9(1), pp. 87-106.

[2]Chan, K. W. 2013. “China: Internal Migration.” The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration.

[3]Liang, Z. 2016. “China’s Great Migration and the Prospects of a More Integrated Society.” Annual Review of Sociology 42, pp. 451-471.

[4]Khor, N., Pang, L., Liu, C., Chang, F., Mo, D., Loyalka, P., and Rozelle, S. 2016. “China’s Looming Human Capital Crisis: Upper Secondary Educational Attainment Rates and the Middle-income Trap.” The China Quarterly 228, pp. 905-926.

[5]Wu, X. and Zhang, Z. 2010. “Changes in Educational Inequality in China, 1990–2005: Evidence from the Population Census Data.” Research in Sociology of Education 17, pp. 123-152.

[6]Xie, Y., Lai, Q., and Wu, X. 2009. “Danwei and Social Inequality in Contemporary Urban China.” Research in the Sociology of Work 19, pp. 283-306.

[7]King, G., Pan, J., and Roberts, M.E. 2013. “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression.” American Political Science Review 107(02), pp. 326-343.

[8]Li, H. and Zhou, L.A. 2005. “Political Turnover and Economic Performance: The Incentive Role of Personnel Control in China.” Journal of Public Economics 89(9), pp.1743-1762.

[9]Xie, Y. and Zhou, X. 2014. “Income Inequality in Today’s China.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(19), pp. 6928-6933.

[10]Oi, Jean C. 1995. “The Role of the Local State in China’s Transitional Economy.” The China Quarterly 144, pp. 1132-1149.

[11]Walder, A. G. 2011. “From Control to Ownership: China’s Managerial Revolution.” Management and Organization Review 7(1), pp. 19-38.

[12]Raymo, J.M., Park, H., Xie, Y. and Yeung, W.J.J. 2015. “Marriage and Family in East Asia: Continuity and Change.” Annual Review of Sociology 41, pp. 471-492.

[13]Xie, Y. 2014. “Gender and Family” in The Oxford Companion to the Economics of China, pp. 495-501. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[14]Peng, X. 2011. “China’s Demographic History and Future Challenges.” Science 333(6042), pp. 581-587.

[15]Xie, Y. and Zhu, H. 2009. “Do Sons or Daughters Give More Money to Parents in Urban China?” Journal of Marriage and Family 71, pp. 174-186.

[16]Gladney, D.C. 2003. “Islam in China: Accommodation or Separatism?” The China Quarterly 174, pp. 451-467.

[17]Lai, Q. and Mu, Z. 2016. “Universal, yet Local: The Religious Factor in Chinese Muslims’ Perception of World Developmental Hierarchy.” Chinese Journal of Sociology 2(4), pp. 524-546.

[18]Wu, X. and Gloria He. 2016. “Changing Ethnic Stratification in Contemporary China.” Journal of Contemporary China 25(102), pp. 938-954.

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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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East Asia

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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East Asia

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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