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.