convoluted case of the coveted Kurils
By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - These are ruggedly beautiful islands, cold to be sure and lashed at
times by ferocious weather, but they are also rich in marine and mineral
resources and their sovereignty is bitterly contested by Japan and Russia, and
not for their scenery.
As expected, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Russian President
Vladimir Putin could not hammer out a solution to the thorny issue of the
Russian-held Northern Territories, known in Russia as the Southern Kurils.
Japan has flatly rejected Russia's
offer to return two of the four islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end
of World War II and insists that all four must be returned, but it is prepared
to be flexible on the timing if Russia recognizes Japanese sovereignty.
The Northern Territories consist of three islands - Kunashiri, Etorofu,
and Shikotan - and the uninhabited Habomai group of islets.
The four major islands are believed to be rich in natural resources, such
as oil and gas, and the area is a major fishing grounds.
Japan hopes that when Putin visits next year - unless he cancels for
political reasons - serious progress can be made in resolving the issue and
returning the territory to Japan.
Their brief 45-minute encounter last Sunday, shortly after the two-day annual
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit in Santiago, Chile,
didn't leave much time for substance, and the two leaders avoided delving into
the decades-long territorial dispute in advance of the expected visit by
Putin to Tokyo next year, probably in the spring. From now on, as the two sides
get deeper into this territorial issue, as they inevitably will, the peoples of
the two nations will realize once again the complexity of the situation.
Given the tough stances taken by the two sides, combined with and even fueled
by both countries' strong domestic public sentiment and nationalist emotions
over this issue, one politically feasible way for both governments to resolve
this issue is to involve a third party, especially the United States, which
enjoys good relations with both, in the negotiations.
On the sidelines of the APEC forum, however, Koizumi and Putin reaffirmed the
need for Tokyo and Moscow to resolve the territorial dispute and conclude a
bilateral peace treaty. But they did not address the specifics of the dispute
over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, the northernmost part of Japan. The
two sides agreed to address the issue when Putin visits Tokyo; Putin told
Koizumi that he would visit Japan early next year, but Russia has yet to
formally propose a date. Meanwhile, Koizumi expressed hopes that Putin would
visit Japan in late March, when the 2005 World Exposition will be held in Aichi
prefecture, according to the Kyodo News Service.
Japanese political observers have suggested that Putin may be withholding
official confirmation and a date for the visit, using the trip as a diplomatic
card to strengthen bilateral negotiations over the long-running territorial
dispute with Japan. Some of them even said Putin might suggest canceling his
trip to Japan in the near future, if Tokyo continues to reject Putin's recent
proposal that the dispute over the Northern Territories be settled with the
return of two of the four contested islands, based on the Japan-Soviet Joint
Declaration of 1956, which calls for the return of two of the four islands to
Putin offered Koizumi hard choices for ending this territorial dispute by
suggesting the return of the smaller Shikotan island, and the uninhabited Habomai
group of islets. Political analysts here and elsewhere suggested that
Putin had sent up a political trail balloon domestically and diplomatically in
order to test domestic opinions and Japan's response to this issue.
But to Tokyo, Putin's statement was nothing new. The following day, Koizumi
swiftly rejected Putin's proposal, saying, "The return of two islands is taken
for granted, but that alone will not be satisfactory to Japan." Tokyo has
adhered to its position of resolving the territorial row under the 1993 Tokyo
Declaration, which names the four islands and says a peace treaty should be
signed after the dispute over their sovereignty is resolved. Japan has
consistently been requesting that Russia return all four islands in the
post-war period, but it has also shown flexibility over the timing of the
return - if Japan's sovereignty over those four islands is confirmed.
The troubled boundary tangled with history
Unlike other political issues, the issue of the Northern Territories has been
unique in commanding political and public solidarity for the return of all four
islands. Every major Japanese political party, including the ruling Liberal
Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, has urged Russia to return
the four islands. This is because the majority of the Japanese believe Russia
occupied the territories without justification after World War II.
To understand the complexity of the issue, one needs to know the modern history
of the problem. The official Japanese version of the history goes like this:
World War II was fought between September 1939 and August 1945; Japan and the
Soviet Union were not at war throughout almost the entire period of the war
because they concluded a neutrality pact in April 1941, and it was valid for
five years. But, on August 9,1945, three days after the atomic bomb was dropped
on Hiroshima and the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the Soviet
Union, violating this neutrality pact, suddenly entered the war against Japan,
which was already on the brink of defeat. About a week later, on August 15,
Japan accepted the Potsdam Proclamation and surrendered to the Allied Powers.
Despite Japan's absolute surrender and its acceptance of the Potsdam
Proclamation, the Soviet Union persisted in its quest for land and relentlessly
invaded Sakhalin, previously Japanese territory, as well as the Kuril islands.
It was on September 5, 1945, that the Soviet Union managed to finally occupy
the Northern Territories. Around that time, about 17,000 Japanese are said to
have been living on those four islands, overwhelmingly noncombatants. Not a few
of them who failed to escape from those islands are believed to have been sent
to Siberia and Central Asia as forced laborers, in effect receiving a death
In all fairness, the Soviet Union lived up to the obligations implicit in the
secret Yalta Agreement of February 1945, signed by Soviet leader Joseph V
Stalin, US president Franklin D Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston S
Churchill, six months before Japan's surrender on August 1945. At the Yalta
Conference, the US and the United Kingdom are said to have allowed the Soviet
Union to unjustly invade and occupy these Japanese lands in the post- World War
II period - a reward for Soviet participation in the war. Based on this secret
agreement, the USSR even claimed to retain the northern part of Hokkaido,
although the US rejected that idea bluntly.
On Shikotan, the people
live primarily by fishing. Habomai is unoccupied. Those are the two islands
Russia says it could relinquish.
Japan and the Allied Powers,
including the US and the UK, signed the peace treaty in San Francisco in 1951,
when the Soviet Union participated but did not sign the treaty. At the
conference, Japan renounced the "Kuril Islands", excluding Etorofu, Kunashiri,
Shikotan, or Habomai islands, which Japan claimed had always been Japanese
territories and wished to claim them after the war. Also, the Soviet inclusion
of the southern half of Sakhalin Island, the Kuril Islands, and the Northern
Territories into their territory could not be recognized by the international
community (in San Francisco, for the treaty signing). For these reasons, the
Soviet Union did not sign the treaty.
Most of Russia's politicians appear to have believed it was no problem to
continue to occupy those islands because the US, Japan's big brother, had
acknowledged the Soviet occupation at the Yalta Conference. But the United
States has actually supported Japan's claim to the four islands for years in
the post-war period.
Thus, historically speaking, this issue is not a bilateral one at all, but a
trilateral one involving the US, at least for Japan. From a historical
perspective, the US has a responsibility to press on this issue as a mediator
or intermediary. The involvement of the US would be helpful to ease the growing
hostile feelings of the Japanese and Russian publics over this issue.
The US has a good opportunity and should seize the moment. Next year marks the
100th anniversary of the peace treaty of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, signed in
the summer of 1905, at the conclusion of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. At
that time, US president Theodore Roosevelt offered mediation, summoned
representatives of the warring parties to Portsmouth and helped greatly in
dealing with the aftermath of that war. Today, the US could be the mediator for
Russia and Japan, which have both more solid ties with the US than ever before
on the governmental and political levels. Furthermore, for those three
countries, this trilateral negotiation process toward better relations between
Japan and Russia would also bring a desirable benefit in common to Northeast
Asia: to check and balance China's emergence as a regional political and
military power, especially since US influence is believed to be rapidly
declining in Northeast Asia, especially in South Korea.
In addition, next year presents a rare opportunity that may never come again.
It also marks the 150th anniversary of the treaty of commerce and friendship
between Japan and Russia. Resolution and closure of the problem next year could
significantly improve the two countries' ties.
According to recent data released by the Japan External Trade Organization
(JETRO), a Japanese government-supported organization, Japan's exports to and
imports from Russia, both hit record highs during last year. Exports to Russia
climbed 87% to US$17.6 billion. Imports from the country were also up 29% to
$42.2 billion. In addition, Japan's exports in the first six months also
increased 101% from the same period last year and Japan's imports from Russia
In 1990s, Japan pursued a practical and realistic approach to resolve this
territorial dispute. It aimed to barter those Russian-held islands for Japan's
huge economic assistance, in a bid to persuade the Russian government and local
governments in both Sakhalin and the Southern Kuril islands, which have needs
often exceeding the Russian central government's financial means (such as
payment suspension of old-age pension), to release control of the islands.
Since the spring of 1991, Japan has committed 89 billon yen (about $860
million) to those islands in total as of March 2004, according to the Russia
Assistance Division of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It has spent all
that money on projects, such as the introduction of diesel generators and the
establishment of medical clinic offices, in the hope that the Russians will
finally give up those islands. For this reason, the Japanese cannot easily
abandon their hope for the return of the four islands. It has cost a lot so far
to strive to retain the islands.
To accelerate this growing economic trend as well, both countries need to
remove this thorny island issue from their domestic and international political
Kosuke Takahashi is a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun and is
currently a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at
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