Kuril Islands Dispute: Is the Russo-Japanese Relationship in a Deadlock?

  • Ever since the World War II ended, Japan-Russia relations have not seen any progress. There is a love-hate relationship between these two countries for about seventy years. Will the situation change? Can Russia and Japan keep their past aside?

    Kuril Islands

    The Kuril Islands are a group of islands that form an archipelago in the Sakhalin Oblast region of Russia extending from Hokkaido, Japan to Kamchatka, Russia. There are more than 50 islands and other small islets which comprise a total area of 10355.61 square kilometers. Although these islands come under Russian administrative jurisdiction, Japan claims a few islands especially the southern islands of Iturup and Kunashir as Japan’s Northern Territories. Originally considered home for the indigenous Ainu people, the Kuril Islands have been under multiple regimes in history. It is said that the Japanese knew about these islands long time before the Russians discovered them as the Matsumae clan of the Edo period first took control over a few islands. The Japanese call the Kuril Islands as “Chishima Retto” or “Kuriru Retto.”

    Russo-Japanese War

    Russia has started its expansionist policy from the 16th century onwards. The Tsar kings of Russia have demonstrated a strong influence in the Siberian region, including Manchuria, from the reign of Ivan IV Vasilyevich. However, the Empire of Japan has taken control over Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria in the late 19th century from China’s Qing Empire through the First Sino-Japanese War. This humiliating defeat of the Qing Empire is said to be one of the reasons for the historic tensions between Japan, China, and Korea to this day.

    Sakhalin Regional Museum in Russia which is an old Japanese building

    Seeing the Russian domination in its imperial territories, Japan has attacked Russia leading to the First Russo-Japanese War in 1904. Russia suffered a huge loss during the war, thus accepting Japan’s sphere of influence especially over Korea and agreed to leave Manchuria. It has also lost the southern part of Sakhalin Island to Japan which it ruled as Karafuto Prefecture. Japan has emerged as a rising power in the East, while many Russians saw the defeat humiliating and their discontent led to the Russian Revolution in 1917.

    Second World War
    White cliffs of Iturup Island

    During the Second World War, the axis powers including Japan suffered a major blow. Russia reclaimed its lost territories including Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Japan signed two major agreements to end its position as an imperial power and surrender its forces after the war – the Treaty of San Francisco (1951), and the Postdam Declaration (1945) that limited Japanese control to just Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and other determined minor islands.

    The modern dispute over the Kuril Islands has started because of the growing discontent among the Japanese over the unfair treatment of Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Japanese believe that some of the islands of Kuril are an extension of Hokkaido and should be given to Japan. They include Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai where Iturup and Kunashir are the main stages of the conflict.

    Japan-Russia Friendship

    Japan and Russia have seen a smug political atmosphere during their meets. The USSR has been aggressive in the territorial dispute for a long time and has shot Japanese fishermen who were allegedly fishing in their waters. After the Cold War ended, Russo-Japanese relations seem to have improved. Japan has been diplomatically working hard to have a peaceful treaty with Russia ever since.

    Currently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is confident in strengthening the ties. He has met Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, on numerous occasions both officially and unofficially. However, the rise of Russian nationalism in the recent events of the Ukraine crisis is seen as a hurdle in further discussions. The falling of oil prices and the power of China is forcing Russia to have a closer relationship with Japan. Recently, Russia has said that it is interested in transferring the islands of Shikotan and Habomai to Japan as a gesture of goodwill but should not be seen as a complete solution to the territorial dispute.

    Modern Japanese see Russia as a land of great architecture and literature. Similarly, the Russians see Japan as an exotic place with unique culture and traditions. Hopefully, a peace treaty will be signed soon.

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