1.      Problem Presentation: Outstanding Territorial Dispute
2.      Background of the Problem: History of the Disputed Territories and Bilateral Relations
3.      Latest Developments
4.      Conclusion
5.      Appendix: Historical Maps


Problem Presentation: Outstanding Territorial Dispute

On October 19, 1956, the Joint Declaration was signed by the USSR and Japan, formally ending the state of war, establishing diplomatic relations and resolving most of the outstanding issues between the two countries. A formal peace treaty however was not concluded. It was postponed for an indefinite time until the resolution of an outstanding territorial dispute. As of today, almost half a century already passed since that day, but the dispute has still not been resolved and peace treaty not concluded. For Japan, as recently expressed by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto (now State Minister for affairs related to the Northern Territories), it is “impossible” to accept any agreement with Russia that will not result in reverting the disputed islands to Japanese sovereignty[1]. Russia, in turn, is not prepared to renounce title to any part of today’s territory. The territories still disputed include the islands of Kunashiri (Kunashir), Etorofu (Iturup), Shikotan and Habomai Archipelago including the smaller islands of  Shibotsu (Zelyonyi), Taraku (Polonskogo), Suisho (Panphilyeva),Yuri and Akiyuri (Anuchina). All of the above islands are referred to as “Northern Territories” in Japan  and “South Kuril District” in Russia.

The current state of Russo-Japanese relations, poses a number of problems of both international and regional character:

1.      Absence of final peace treaty blocks normal development of bilateral relations between Japan and Russia.

2.      The disputed area may potentially become an area of tension thus sparking escalation of military presence and the arms race in the region which may become extremely dangerous keeping in mind that Russia is a nuclear power with loosening control over its arsenals of mass destruction and remote military structures.

3.      The outstanding territorial dispute blocks economic cooperation between the two countries, including Japanese investments in the Russian Far East. This could possibly boost the depressed economy of the Russian Far East and Siberia, as well as create a significant number of new jobs in Japan. Today’s economic depression in the Russian Far East and South Siberia (Russo-Chinese frontier) itself is a  source of potential instability in North-East Asia which could be significantly relieved through economic cooperation between the Russian region and Japan.

4.      Russo-Japanese conflicts in the fishing area around the disputed islands result in loss and damage of property, and even loss of human lives (in cases when Russian coast guard fires at Japanese fishing vessels).

The disputed islands are part of much bigger territory, which was historically claimed both by Japan and Russia. It includes relatively big island of Sakhalin (Karafuto) and all the islands of Kuril (Chishima-retto) archipelago. As a result of World War 2, Japan officially renounced title to Sakhalin and most of the Kuriles. However, the South Kuriles/Northern Territories (Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and Habomai group), now under Russian sovereignty, are still  claimed by both conflicting parties neither of which is ready for compromise acceptable to the opposite party.


Background to the Problem: 
History of the Disputed Territories and Bilateral Relations


The Early Days    (Click here to see the map)

Historically inhabited by Ainu and Nivkha peoples, the area of Karafuto (Sakhalin), Hokkaido (Ezo) and Kuriles (Chishima) became an object of Chinese (Yuan, later Ming dynasty) and Japanese expansion in early 13th century. Four hundred years later, rapidly expanding eastwards Russian Empire challenged the above two powers by establishing its first strongholds on the North Pacific (Okhotsk) coast in1639 and 1645. The following two centuries faced Russia becoming a Pacific power claiming sovereignty over Sakhalin island and the Kuriles as well as over Amur and Ussouri Territories on the mainland (now Amur province and Maritime territory of Russian Federation, by the time described North-East territories of Manchu China). During the same period, Japan was rapidly expanding northwards. Having defeated the Ajnu and Nivkha at the battles of Syaksyain and Kunashiri-Menasi (in 1669 and 1789 respectively), the Japanese finally established firm control over Hokkaido, Kunashiri, Etorofu Shikotan and Habomais. The end of the 18th century also saw Japanese strongholds and settlements established on Central and North Kuriles and Southern Sakhalin and some armed clashes between Russians and Japanese in the frontier area (see map 1). In contrast to the Russian Empire whose core was too far away from its Pacific possessions with no over-land routes available, Japan was in a position of effectively colonizing disputed territories, rapidly outnumbering native inhabitants. As a result, by  the middle of the 19th century, Hokkaido and the South Kuriles were integral parts of Japan[2], whereas Russian and Chinese possessions in the area could be characterized as underpopulated, unintegrated territories only nominally belonging to the claimant countries.


Japan and the Russian Empire: From Shimoda to Portsmouth

In early 1853, Manchu China officially gave up its claims to Sakhalin leaving the Sakhalin-Kuriles to be an object of Russian and Japanese ambitions only. Two years later in 1855, Russia and Japan established diplomatic relations. The same year (7 February, 1855) the Treaty of Shimoda (the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation) was concluded. Among other important agreements, the Treaty of  Shimoda included the agreement on national borders between the two empires in accordance with which most of the Kuril islands were recognized as part of Russia while Japanese sovereignty was confirmed over the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan (the smaller islands of Habomai group were not mentioned while they were regarded as part and parcel of Ezo-Hokkaido, Japanese sovereignty over which was not even questioned). Article 2 of the treaty stated that: “henceforth the boundary between the two nations shall lie between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu. The whole of Etorofu shall belong to Japan, and the Kurile Islands, lying to the north of and including Uruppu, shall belong to Russia[3]. During the talks preceding the signing of the Shimoda treaty, Russian representative Commodore Putyatin confirmed that basing on the “careful survey” the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu  were regarded as an inalienable part of Japan. The Treaty of Shimoda also regulated the status of Sakhalin/Karafuto island which was not supposed to be partitioned between the two parties but was to remain under Russo-Japanese condominium (see map 2). Further territorial disputes between Russia and Japan came in the middle of the 70s of the same century. Both countries proposed partitioning the Sakhalin/Karafuto island less then 20 years after the conclusion of  the treaty of Shimoda. Japanese proposal was to establish new national border along the 50th parallel whereas the Russians insisted on the border along the 48th parallel. The talks between the two countries resulted in conclusion of St. Petersburg Treaty of 7 May 1875, according to which Japan gave up its claims to Sakhalin/Karafuto in exchange for Russia’s renouncing title to all the Kuril islands in favor of Japan. Thus 18 more islands from Shimushu in the north, to Uruppu in the south, were added to Japanese possessions (see map 3).                                             The Treaty of St. Petersburg, however, did not put an end to conflicting ambitions in the area. Certain political circles in Tokyo never accepted the loss of Sakhalin, while Russian military strategists kept planning future “acquisition” of the Kuriles. Further tensions between Japan and Russia followed the increase of Japanese influence in Korea and Russian influence in north-eastern China (Manchuria). The two empires were at the brink of military conflict after the Sino-Japanese war of 1894, as a result of which Japan gained Formosa (Taiwan) and the Liaotung Peninsula with the city of Port-Arthur (Shimonoseki Treaty of 17 April 1895). Supported by Germany and France, Russian intervention that followed the Shimonoseki Treaty, forced Japan to surrender its title to Liaotung to Russia (see map 3). The escalation of bilateral tensions resulted in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 and the defeat of Russian army and navy. The Treaty of Portsmouth (5 September 1905) that followed the Japanese victory, gave Japan title to Liaotung and half of Sakhalin/Karafuto to the South of the 50th parallel (see map 4).                          


Japan and Soviet Russia/USSR: Between Two World Wars

The Russo-Japanese borders established by the Treaty of Portsmouth remained legally unchanged until the end of World War 2. Several attempts to expand its territory at the expense of it's northern neighbor were made by Japan between 1918 and 1925 when the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent civil war brought total chaos and anarchy to Siberian and the Far Eastern provinces of the collapsed Russian empire. In 1918 Japanese troops occupied a significant part of the Russian Maritime and Amur Territories with the port of Vladivostok and the city of Khabarovsk using as a pretext protection of Japanese citizens and support of anti-bolshevik forces in the above areas. Two years later, Japanese troops occupied Northern Sakhalin (a territory with recently discovered coal and oil fields), a hinterland around the mouth of Amur river and some sectors of Chita province (the latter operation performed by Japanese units already deployed in Manchuria). However, no official annexations of Russian territory  took place during Japanese intervention in Russian Far East and Siberia (see map 4). Step-by-step normalization of bilateral relations between Japan and the new government of Communist Russia (since 1922, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics/USSR) that followed the end of Russian civil  war, resulted in gradual evacuation of Japanese forces from Chita, Khabarovsk and Vladivostok in 1922 and Northern Sakhalin in 1925. In November 1940 already involved in World War 2, Japan made an attempt to purchase northern part of Sakhalin from the USSR attracted by its coal and oil fields but the diplomatic maneuvers around that territory resulted in no success.


The End of World War Two: Northern Territories Lost to the USSR     (See map 5 and map 6)

The last shift of the national border between Russia (by that time, the USSR) and Japan occurred at the end of World War 2 after the Soviet attack on Japan in August 1945. During most of the world war, there were practically no hostilities between Japan and the USSR based on the Neutrality Pact signed on 13 April 1941. The 1941 Neutrality Pact was legally binding until 13 April 1946. Prior to the conclusion of the pact, an attempt was made by the Russian government to acquire southern Sakhalin/Karafuto and the Kuriles/Chishima as a price for proposed non-aggression treaty. This territorial claim was made in November 1940 against the principles of both St. Petersburg and Portsmouth treaties. However it may be important to mention here the two major principles of “Leninist Foreign Policy” which Soviet leadership followed since 1917 (the year when communists came to power). The first was the principle of non-responsibility for the treaties signed by Tsarist (pre-communist) regime. The second one was the principle of non-necessity of fulfilling the agreements with “bourgeois” (non-communist) governments even if each particular agreement was signed by Soviet leadership. Violation of non-aggression pact with the Republic of Georgia in 1921, Partition of Poland in 1939, aggression against Finland the same year, occupation and annexation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in 1940,- are only few examples of how Soviet Russia was breaking legally binding international agreements and treaties. Furthermore, according to George E. Lensen, Soviet territorial claims of November 1940 included all the islands of Kuril Archipelago with Kunashiri and Etorofu ignoring the fact that Japanese sovereignty over the latter three islands was never questioned and no previous Russian government ever claimed them[4].                                                                                                      

On August 9, 1945 the USSR entered the war against Japan. This violation of the 1941 Neutrality Pact took place three days after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima, when the Japanese Empire was collapsing under the military pressure of the Allies. That act of Russian military collaboration with the Allied Forces in the Asia-Pacific region became possible only after the Kuriles and Southern Sakhalin/Karafuto were promised to the USSR at Yalta conference (4-11 February 1945) as a compensation for its involvement in Allied operations in Asia. In Yalta US and Britain generally accepted the following Soviet proposal, entitled “Marshal Stalin’s Political Conditions  for Russia’s Entry into the War against Japan”: “The former rights of Russia violated by the treacherous attack of Japan in 1904 should be restored: The southern part of Sakhalin and its adjacent islands should be returned to the Soviet Union… The Kuril Islands should be handed over to the Soviet Union[5]. The above statement contained at least two legal inaccuracies:

1.            The Kuril/Chishima Islands were never conquered by Japan from Russia but were given to Japan in exchange for Sakhalin/Karafuto           in accordance with the St. Petersburg Treaty of  May 7, 1875.

2.            The southern part of Sakhalin incorporated into Japan as a result of Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, was lost by Russian Empire and not by the Soviet Union (the state which never existed before February 1922). Keeping in mind that the territory in question never belonged to the Soviet Union, it could be transferred but not “returned” to that country.

According to Bohlen, US President Franklin Roosevelt accepted Soviet proposals due to the fact that he “thought that both southern Sakhalin and the Kuriles had been seized by Japan in the 1904 war and that Russia was only getting back the territories that had been taken from her”[6]. That sounds strange, keeping in mind that prior to the Yalta conference, the U.S. State Department made a survey of Russo-Japanese territorial problems and on 28 December 1944 produced a detailed memorandum (Blakeslee Memorandum) which included recommendation to leave the southern Kuriles (Etorofu and Kunashiri) under Japanese sovereignty. The status of the Habomai islands was not even put in question. Not all Soviet territorial claims to Japan were confirmed at Potsdam Conference of 26 July, 1945. Article 13 of Potsdam Declaration stated that “Japanese sovereignty should be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine”(italicized by me, A.A.). The concept of “minor islands as we determine” could definitely be used as a pretext both to leaving southern Kuriles to Japan and to transferring them to the USSR.                                                                 

The Soviet declaration of war of August 9, 1945 was immediately followed by active military operations of Soviet troops against the Japanese Kwantung army in Manchuria. In the area of Kuriles/Chishima however, no active military operations were taking place prior to official acceptance of Potsdam terms by Japan on August 15, 1945. That can probably be explained the fact that Soviet-American talks regarding the parts of Japan to be occupied by the USSR did not result in any concrete agreement until August18. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin insisted not only on the right of the USSR to occupy the Kuriles and South Sakhalin/Karafuto but also on the inclusion of Hokkaido into future Soviet sphere of  control. Harry Truman who succeeded to the U.S. presidency on the death of Roosevelt in April 1945, opposed the idea of putting Hokkaido under Soviet influence. Truman’s position was supported by Britain and Nationalist China, and finally Stalin had to accept it officially by 18 August 1945. On 18 August 1945 (after official cease-fire) Soviet artillery shelled the coast of the Northern Kuriles. On the August 19th, Soviet troops stationed on Kamchatka peninsula were ordered to occupy all the Kuriles, plus part of Hokkaido to the north of the line running from the city of Rumoi to the city of Kushiro[7]. That order proved that in spite of the official acceptance of the Allies’ provisions allowing Soviet control to be established over the Kuriles/Chishima and Sakhalin/Karafuto only, the USSR still planned the occupation of Hokkaido or at least the northern part of it. Such action could have resulted in the annexation of that territory, establishing a pro-Soviet administration or just using it as a chip in future peace talks. Soviet invasion in the Kurils was met with Japanese resistance due to which it was only August 21 when the Japanese garrison on Shimushu surrendered following orders from its General Headquarters. 10 days later, on September 1, 1945 the last Japanese troops in the area surrendered to the Soviets on Kunashiri and Etorofu (this time without resistance). The battle for the Northern Kurils postponed the occupation of all archipelago and made Soviet military and political leadership to give up the idea of occupying Hokkaido. However on September 2, 1945, Soviet troops occupied Shikotan and Habomai group, the islands which  were geographically and politically not part of the Kuril archipelago. More than 200, 000 Japanese citizens residing in the Northern Territories prior to Soviet occupation had to flee south leaving behind their homes and property.  Many of those who did not leave, were deported to concentration camps in Siberia together with thousands of Japanese prisoners of war. Thousands of civil refugees died at the sea as their vessels were sunk by Soviet submarines and aircrafts [8].                                                                                                                           

On February 2, 1946 the USSR unilaterally declared the annexation of South Sakhalin/Karafuto, all the islands of the Kuril archipelago (including Kunashiri and Etorofu) and Shikotan-Habomai group. Immediate russification of the annexed territories followed: between 1946 and 1948 almost all Japanese names were replaced with Russian-Soviet ones, the remaining of pre-war 400, 000 Japanese residents of the Northern Territories were forcibly deported to Hokkaido and a special Sakhalin province including all former Japanese territories, plus northern Sakhalin, was established on January 2, 1947.


The San Francisco Peace Conference and Peace Treaty

Almost immediately after the end of the war, both Japanese politicians and various groups of citizens started addressing American and Soviet leadership and asking for the return of Northern Territories. This was the starting point of still existing Northern Territories Problem (Hoppo Ryodo Mondai). In most cases Japanese protests were focusing on the Southern Kuriles (Etorofu and Kunashiri) and the Shikotan/Habomai, group only, giving up all claims to South Sakhalin and central/northern Kuriles. As a legal pretext, Japanese protesters used the statement of the Allied powers confirmed during Potsdam conference according to which Japan was to be stripped of all the "territories which she has taken by violence and greed". The term of territories acquired “by violence and greed" could theoretically be applied to South Sakhalin, Manchuria, Liaotung, Korea, Taiwan and the Pescadores (see map 5), but it could hardly be applied to Etorofu, Kunashiri  and Shikotan-Habomai which have been confirmed as inalienable part of Japan at the very first international treaty regulating Japanese northern borders (Shimoda). While Soviet leadership ignored all Japanese territorial claims, the position of U.S. government was a subject of slow evolution from rejecting all attempts of Japan to regain any losses towards the tendency of re-interpretation of Yalta statements. This shift in the American approach towards northern borders of Japan was probably connected with the development of the Cold War that strained Soviet-Western relations in general and Soviet-American ones in particular and put Japan in position of potential ally of the USA in possible confrontation with the USSR and communist China. Between September 4 and 8, 1951, the San-Francisco Conference settled most of the diplomatic and security issues stemming from World War 2 in the Asia-Pacific region, resulting in San Fransisco Peace Treaty between Japan and the Allied Powers including the United States and the United Kingdom. The USSR was the only Allied power that refrained from signing the San-Francisco treaty due to the disagreement on its border with Japan. The U.S. position on the Northern Territories was officially expressed in San-Francisco by John Foster Dulles who basing on research made by State Department experts, made a statement according to which the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and Habomai group “were never historically or geographically considered part of the Kurile islands and therefore Russia had no right to occupy them even under the so-called Yalta agreement”[9]. The reaction of Soviet delegation in San-Francisco was not marked by any compromise. From the point of view of the USSR, the future of the disputed islands had been determined in 1945 in Yalta and Potsdam and was not to be revised. It should be mentioned however that both Yalta and Potsdam provided some space for future adjustments of borders, keeping in mind that  the statement: “Japanese sovereignty should be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine”(see p.10), allowed to reconsider the status of such islands as those defined by Japan as Northern Territories.


Japan and the USSR: From the 1956 Declaration to the Collapse of the Soviet Union

The positions of both Japan and the USSR regarding the disputed islands, did not change significantly during the first five years after San-Francisco. The years of 1955-56 brought the first talks between the two countries aimed at normalization of bilateral relations. During long and uneasy negotiations involving above all other matters, the problem of the Northern Territories, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev defined the Japanese offer to establish the border north to Etorofu “unrealistic”. However on August 10, 1956, Khruschev offered Japan Shikotan and the Habomais as the “final Soviet offer” in return for dropping all claims to Kunashiri and Etorofu (see map on next page). After some hesitation Japan rejected that “final offer” and offered the USSR to sign a “normalization agreement” instead of a peace treaty, thus leaving the territorial issue open. The USSR agreed, and on October 19, 1956, the Joint Declaration (normalization agreement) was signed by both countries. Article 9 of the Joint Declaration included Soviet promise to return Shikotan and the Habomais at the moment when Japan becomes ready to sign the peace treaty.






“The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Japan agree to continue…negotiations for the conclusion of a Pease treaty. In this connexion, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics… agrees to transfer to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan, the actual transfer… to take place after the conclusion of the Peace Treaty…”


Swearingen, Roger, The Soviet Union and the Postwar Japan, Stanford, Calif., 1978, pp.223-5


Between October 1956 and the break-up of the USSR in 1991, there were several attempts to resolve the dispute. In January 1960 the USSR hardened its position on the Northern Territories, trying to tie up the return of the Habomais and Shikotan with the revision of U.S.-Japanese security cooperation. In October 1973, facing support of Japan by the U.S.A. and Communist China[10], Moscow stepped back to its position of 1956. The position of Tokyo was not subject to any major changes although some political parties surprisingly including the Socialist Party and the Communists, demanded not only the return of Kunashiri, Etorofu and the Habomais but all the Kuriles, insisting on the border as of the treaty of St. Petersburg (1875) to remain unchanged.  A certain breakup in Soviet-Japanese relations seemed to be on the way on 16-19 April 1991 when the USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev paid a visit to Japan. During talks between Gorbachev and Japanese Prime Minister Kaifu, the USSR for the first time after World War 2, officially acknowledged the existence of outstanding territorial dispute between the two countries. The talks resulted in  the conclusion of 15 agreements between the two countries (predominantly of economic and environmental nature) and the Japan-Soviet Joint Communique in which both sides expressed their readiness and willingness to accelerate all required preparations for the peace treaty. By the “preparations” Japan meant resolving territorial problems, together with some other important issues. The goal of Soviet leadership was to avoid any concrete steps aimed at resolving the dispute on the disputed islands. At the end of April 1991, mass media of both Japan and the USSR released information regarding the future development of bilateral relations. Materials published in Japan could be interpreted as readiness of the new Soviet leadership to return the Northern Territories (Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomais) to Japan. Russian publications of the same time described any hopes for redrawing the Soviet-Japanese border as “unrealistic” and dangerous for Gorbachev and his political career. Among other reasons explaining the above situation was the quickly worsening economic situation in the USSR and rise of chauvinistic and nationalist emotions in the country. The Soviet leader himself when offered by Kaifu to cede the islands to Japan in exchange for the Japanese “support of perestroika”, answered that such an approach would be “humiliating and impermissible”[11]. Thus the 1991 “breakthrough” on territorial issue was restricted only to the Soviet acceptance of the existence of territorial problem. The 19 April Communique happened to be final of  Japan-Soviet relations, and Gorbachev was the first and the last Soviet leader to visit Japan. Less than 8 months later, on 8 December 1991, the USSR ceased to exist. From now on the Northern Territories Problem became an issue of Japan and Russia, the country which on 27 December of the same year, was recognized by Japan as the successor state of the USSR.


Latest Developments

Yeltsin Era (1991-99): Russo-Japanese Dialog on Northern Territories Continues

The end of the USSR and formal end of communism gave birth to new hopes in Japan for the return of Northern Territories. Both Russian President Yeltsin and the democratic press of the new nation condemned various aspects of international politics of the USSR and during the years of 1991-92, some outstanding territorial disputes were solved in favor of new Russia’s neighbors (for example, confirmation of Russian-inhabited Crimea as part of Ukraine, confirmation of Russo-Kazakstani border leaving four predominantly Russophone provinces under the sovereignty of Kazakstan, readiness to discuss disputed border issues with China). The first year after the desintegration of the USSR was marked by activisation of all aspects of Russo-Japanese relations. In February 1992, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Kunadze  was quoted by Kyodo News as remembering the existence of Russo-Japanese borders of 1875 (when the Northern Territories were part of Hokkaido and Japan)             . This statement, plus the remark of Russian ambassador Poltoranin regarding a 10 to15-year transitional period required for the transfer of disputed islands to Japan and the planned visit of President Yeltsin to Tokyo, were accepted in Japan as a sign of a new breakthrough in bilateral relations. In Russia, however, the rumors of possible territorial concessions to Japan provoked active opposition beginning with hundreds of thousands of letters from Russian citizens to their president and ending with highly emotional speeches made in Russian Parliament by Communist and Nationalist deputies. As the result, Boris Yeltsin’s visit to Japan was cancelled and Russian President made a statement that no transfer of Northern Territories was possible at that moment. Both the cancellation of Yeltsin’s visit and his latter stateement caused negative reaction and disappointment in Japan and blocked a number of previously planned cooperation projects.

In October 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin finally paid an official visit to Japan, and after negotiating with then Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, the Tokyo Declaration was signed together with package of 18 other documents. The Declaration was clearly aimed at «working out fair peace treaty, solving territorial claims basing on historical facts and legal documents… as well as on the principles of law and justice»[12]. Since then, during Russo-Japanese talks on lower levels, the Tokyo Declaration has been repeatedly confirmed as the basis for the development of bilateral relations. At the same time no concrete steps aimed at future transfer of the disputed islands, have been mentioned by Russian side.  On the contrary, in November 1993, Russia restricted visa requirements for Japanese citizens in the area of Kuril Islands and Russian border guards were allowed to open fire at vessels violating the sea borders of the Russian Federation. The latter action was characterized by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a reaction to increased activity of Japanese poachers in the waters surrounding the disputed islands. [13]

During the years of 1994-95 there were a number of visits of Russian high-ranking officials to Japan (Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskowiec, Deputy Defense Minister Gromov, Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Kozyrev, Presidential envoy Ivan Rybkin, a.o.). At the end of all bilateral talks that followed, both sides confirmed the intention to proceed further for the early conclusion of a peace treaty, based on the Tokyo Declaration.

In April 1996, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin had a meeting during which bilateral relations and Russian reforms were discussed. The two leaders once again confirmed their intention to speed up preparatory work for the future peace treaty basing on the Tokyo Declaration, and agreed that it is important to revitalize the peace treaty negotiations at the Foreign Minister level. The same month a session of Russo-Japanese Peace Treaty Working Group took place in Moscow.

 Finally, the last years of the “Yeltsin Era” resulted in the two Russo-Japanese “No-tie Summits”[14]. The first one was held in Krasnoyarsk on 1-2 November 1997. Characterized by an attempt of creating a ”personal relationship of trust and friendship” between the two leaders, the Krasnoyarsk summit resulted in working out of “Yeltsin-Hashimoto Plan” based on the Tokyo Declaration but aimed at practical realization of its principles. Some major elements of the "Yeltsin-Hashimoto Plan” included:

  • Promotion of Japanese investments in Russian Federation
  • Involvement of Japanese corporations in modernization of Trans-Siberian Railway, as well as the airports, power stations and seaports of Russian Far East
  • Japanese acceptance of the guarantees provided by 11 Russian banks for Japanese investments

·         Agreement to conclude the peace treaty by the year 2000.

               Once again, the territorial issue was mentioned indirectly only, as a pre-condition of the planned peace treaty and with no concrete agreements.

The last “No-tie Summit” between Yeltsin and Hashimoto took place during the Russian President’s visit to Kawana (Japan) on 18-19 April 1998.  Between the two “No-tie Summits” the following progress has been made in bilateral relations:

  1. Japanese fishermen were allowed to fish (on a commercial basis) near the Kuril Islands.
  2. Russian  military presence in the Kuril Archipelago was significantly reduced.
  3. Foreign trips between Japan the Russian Far East area without visas became possible.
  4. Russo-Japanese Peace Treaty Working Group (with Foreign Affairs Ministers of both countries as co-chairmen) kept working.

The Kawana Summit resulted in the Kawana Agreement, which was a development of "Yeltsin-Hashimoto Plan". The Kawana Agreement contained besides all, the following proposals:

  • Japanese transfer to Russia the first  600 million USD, as part of the previously planned 1.5 billion credit to Russia.
  • Governments and business circles of both countries promote the creation of joint company aimed at development of Japanese investment in Russia.
  • Construction of a Japanese-owned car factory in Moscow province and a Japanese-owned fish cannery in the Kuriles

·         In the field of security: “search and rescue” games  in the Sea of Japan by the navy forces of both countries for the summer of 1998.

Russian President also proposed to work out a broader concept of "peace, friendship and collaboration treaty" instead of “just a peace treaty”[15]. This meant that besides solving the territorial disputes, the proposed treaty could enforce collaboration in the field of economy, security and other issues. President Yeltsin also transferred to Japan some secret documentation from the KGB archives regarding the Japanese POW forcibly kept in Russia after World War 2. In his turn, Prime Minister Hashimoto made a new proposal for the future peace treaty between the two countries. The new proposal recommended Russia’s official recognition of the South Kuril islands / Northern Territories (Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomais) as part of Japan. However practical transfer of the disputed islands could be postponed.

The latter proposal received an official answer only during the visit of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to Moscow on 12 November 1998. The Summit meeting with President Yeltsin in Kremlin resulted in both leaders signing the Moscow Declaration on Establishing a Creative Partnership between Russian Federation and Japan. The Declaration confirmed both countries' official commitment to further strengthening Japan-Russia cooperation in all areas, including politics, economy, security, culture and international cooperation and resulted in signing a number of important agreements. The Russian side provided its response to the proposal made by Japan (Hashimoto) in Kawana in April. The Russian counter-proposal was “to solve the problem in such a way that it would promote bilateral financial, economic and any other possible cooperation in S.Kuril area without harming national interests of any of the two parties"[16]. Yeltsin’s offer contained the following major points:

  1. There should be a separate agreement on South Kuriles after the signing the peace treaty in 2000.
  2. Keeping in mind "the delicacy" of the problem, both parties should agree on non-promulgation of the contents of their initiatives.


The contents of new Japanese offers that followed Yeltsin’s counter-proposal,  were never published. However, according to some confidential sources, Obuchi made one more offer as a pre-condition for the future peace treaty. In case Russia considered accepting that last Japanese proposal, she should officially recognize jurisdiction of Japan over the Northern Territories without immediate transfer of the islands. Russian administration and population were to remain on Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomais for an indefinite period of time. Russia declined the proposal. That meant that Russia still kept avoiding any steps not only towards the return of the disputed islands but even official recognition of Northern Territories as part of Japan. Since the Moscow Summit of November 1998, there was no further development of territorial issue between Japan in Russia until the end of 1999 when Boris Yeltsin transferred power to Vladimir Putin.

The Era of Boris Yeltsin brought no significant change in the Russian approach to the problem of the Northern Territories from the position of the USSR before Gorbachev. The only shift was the recognition of the existence of the outstanding dispute. The above situation sharply contrasted with Russia’s approach towards her territorial dispute with China during the same period of time. For example, by 11 November 1995 Russo-Chinese border was moved up to 350 meters back into Russian territory leaving China with a number of disputed islands in Amur and Ussuri rivers and thousands sq.miles of previously Russian cedar forests and hunting grounds. The demarcation of new Russo-Chinese border was met with sharp opposition on behalf of thousands the Russian citizens and the administration of frontier areas, which in contrast to opposition towards the return of South Kuriles to Japan, was ignored by Russian leadership.



Putin Era (2000 - present): “No Outstanding Territorial Disputes”

The approach of new Russian President Vladimir Putin to the problem of the Northern Territories demonstrates the slide back to pre-1956 Soviet position on the disputed islands. In spite of demonstrated general willingness to improve bilateral relations and promote economic cooperation, Putin stated a number of times that from his point of view, there are no outstanding territorial problems between Russia and Japan.  The special session of Russian Government on November 9, 2000 devoted to the development of the Kuriles was one of quite a few actions of modern Russian leadership demonstrating that Russia’s aim in the region to secure its control over the islands instead of ceding them to any foreign country. The recent statement by Russian Parliament deputy (Union of Rightist Forces) Irina Khakamada that she doubts there will be a peace treaty between the two countries in the near future[17], and the denial by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reports in the Japanese media that President Putin has suggested that the occupation of the Kuriles “had been a mistake”[18], are further indicators of firm Russian position of non-transferring the disputed islands. In his turn, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori confirmed that as of today,  Japan is not going to bargain away any of the claimed South Kuril islands and that quickly resolving that dispute would be the best way topromote "peace and security" throughout the Asia-Pacific region[19].



The Problem Still Unresolved

Basing on the above and on the current tendencies of political development, one may conclude that the territorial dispute between Japan and Russia still remains unresolved, and no significant progress has been made since the middle of the passed century. Such a situation strains bilateral relations and blocks normal development of both political and economic cooperation between Japan and Russia. 


The Position of Russia

Modern Russian leadership is not too far from the most conservative circles of Russian Federation (among them communists and nationalists) following the old populist slogans like “Sacred borders of the Motherland are inviolable”. This approach is supported by most Russian media. As a result, the majority of Russians, especially representatives of older generations, tend to oppose any territorial concessions to Japan. This attitude sharply contrasts with public attitude towards adjustments of Russo-Chinese border ceding to China territories much bigger than the islands claimed by Japan and even towards confirming existing borders of Russia with Ukraine and Kazakstan that left millions of Russians abroad. A smaller group of Russians (among them democrats, moderate nationalists and the majority of entrepreneur class) is ready to support the idea of returning Northern Territories to Japan in case that gives Russia Japanese credits and increased investments. The attitude of the latter group to the existing problem can be illustrated by the statement of Russian human rights activist and moderate nationalist Alexander Solzhenitsyn who recently wrote: “Here we can see the unforgivable bluntness of our leaders in their attitude towards South Kurils. After having carelessly given tens of… Russian provinces to Ukraine and Kazakstan, they demonstrate fake patriotism by refusing to give back to Japan the islands that never belonged to Russia…”[20]. However those Russians who express support of the above statement, do not represent the majority of the population and are unable to influence modern tendencies in Russian foreign policy. Many Russians are also afraid that the transfer of disputed territories to Japan may cause unrest and the establishment of dictatorship in Russia.


The Position of Japan

The position of Japanese government and significant part of the population has been clearly expressed in a booklet on the problem issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in 1999:

Japan fervently hopes to provide a firm legal basis for mutual trust between the Japanese and Russian peoples by resolving the territorial issue and concluding a peace treaty and drastically improve relations between the two countries. We believe that the building of neighborly and friendly relations, and promoting cooperation without animosity between Japan and Russia, would not only meet the interests of both nations, but also greatly contribute to ever-lasting peace and stability both in the Asian Pacific region, and, the whole world… We are convinced that the Russian people, if allowed to consider the facts shown in this booklet, along with values based on law and justice would come to the conclusion that returning what Japan calls the Northern Territories--the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai to Japan is the just and correct course of action. We think it is best that the resolution of the territorial issue should be a mutually agreed-upon decision made by fair judgement based on an accurate understanding of the facts”[21].

The above statement allows to believe that the Government of Japan, as well as the majority of the Japanese, consecutively, support the idea that no peace treaty and no normalization of Russo-Japanese relations is possible unless South Kuriles / South Chishima are returned under Japanese jurisdiction. The basis for such a conviction is formed by the principles of “historical justice” and “national honor”. Certain circles in Japan would welcome the inclusion of southern Sakhalin/Karafuto and the whole Kuril archipelago into Northern Territories, however that part of the Japanese population does not represent the majority and is unlikely to influence current political process.


The Position of Indigenous Ainu and Nivkha People (The Third Party?)

The position of the indiginuos population of the disputed area has been sofar never taken into consideration by either Russia or Japan. However, from the beginning of the 90s various Ainu organizations of Japan (there are no Ainu people living in Russia any more; those who were not killed or deported to Japan during the complicated periods of history, were most likely totally russified) started expressing their attitude towards the above territorial problem in most cases defining it as a “dispute between thieves”[22].             That statement expresses the opinion that both parties were invaders that partitioned the land to which none of them had moral or legal right. At the moment it is hard to say whether the above approach is shared by the majority of Ajnu people. Another offer was made in 1992 by the president of the Ainu Council of the Kuriles and Sakhalin (Toyooka Masanori) who proposed both the Russian and Japanese governments to create an Ainu autonomous district on one of the islands, which would help to preserve Ainu culture[23]. There is no information available at the moment regarding the point of Nivkha people, who form a vanishing community of several hundred families in the very north of Sakhalin island and have no organization representing them.


Current Economic and Demographic Situation in Northern Territories

As of today, the disputed islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomais can be described as a sort of “forgotten territory” of a weakening Russian Federation. In spite of persistent attempts of Soviet and Russian administrations to settle the conquered territories, the islands still remain under-populated. They can boast less than 9000 settlers, making population density the lowest in Russian Far East (1.5 per square km.) and significantly contrasting with the demographic situation when the islands were part of Japan. Examining the detailed maps of the islands, one often finds former Japanese settlements with Russian names and an abbreviation “nezhil.” (Russian word for “uninhabited”) in brackets. The population of South Kuriles is not only decreasing but also aging due to extremely high unemployment, isolation and harsh climate. The remaining inhabitants are constantly suffering from shortages of consumer goods, food, fuel and electricity. During the last 50 years, the economy of the islands was based exclusively on fishing and serving numerous garrisons, naval bases and radar stations. The unique nature of the islands provided potential for the development of tourist industry which was impossible due to the fact that the islands were restricted even to most of Russians, not to mention foreign visitors. The economy of the islands today is in a sharp decrease because the fishing resources are rapidly running short, the importance of military activity is going down and the development of tourism is impossible due to a lack of funds. Even correspondents of Russian media recently visiting Northern Territories have to admit that the islands produce an impression of “no-man’s land”.


What are Possible Gains of Russia if the Outstanding Dispute is Resolved?

If the outstanding territorial dispute between Russia and Japan is finally resolved, the possible gains of Russian Federation could be the following:

1.      Japan, which is already the biggest creditor of Russia after Germany, could significantly increase its financial assistance to Russian Federation

2.      Japanese investments in Russian Far East may increase to such an extent that they may stop the current recession of the economy Russian Far East and Siberia and as a result, making those areas much more profitable to Russia

3.      Keeping in mind that Russian strategists seriously believe in the potential threat of Chinese expansionism once China becomes more self-reliant in missile, space and military technology, Russia may be interested in developing a Russo-Japanese security alliance. The latter, however, is not possible before the return of the Northern Territories to Japan.

4.      Ceding the disputed islands to Japan should not damage Russia’s prestige (neither international, nor inside the country) at least due to the fact that even if the islands are returned to Japan, Russia will still keep most of the territories gained as a result of its military operations during the last weeks of World War 2.

5.      Resolving the dispute will significantly decrease military presence at the Russo-Japanese frontier which modern Russia can hardly afford.


What are Possible Gains of Japan if the Outstanding Dispute is Resolved?

In case Japan receives back the disputed islands, the possible gains of Japan could be the following:

1.      Japan will finally obtain what in Japan is believed to be “historically fair borders” which will keep together all Japanese lands. The concept of territorial integrity is an important element of Japanese political culture. The return of lost territories will also be regarded in Japan as “healing national wounds”.

2.      Business circles of Japan will finally have a “green light” to invest in Russia and gain access to natural resources of Russian Far East and Siberia. That can significantly boost today’s troubled Japanese economy.

3.      Even relatively small disputed islands can help solve demographic problems of relatively overpopulated Japan.

4.      Resolving the dispute will significantly decrease costly military presence at Japan-Russia frontier.



Can the Outstanding Russo-Japanese Dispute be Resolved in the Near Future?

Although some opportunities that sprung up during the previous years due to the end of the Cold War, were lost, the next decade still provides a chance to settle the long territorial dispute. It is hard to believe that Japan will drop its claim to what is believed to be legally and historically an inalienable part of the country. On the other hand, Russia may still reconsider its policy of keeping all the Kuril archipelago as a part of “fair loot” for participation in World War 2. If that happens, the two Asia-Pacific powers will come to a completely new stage of bilateral relations from which both societies will definitely gain. From the global point of view, resolving this old conflict may turn northern part of Asia-Pacific region into a realm of both security and stability.





Recommended Reading

Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi
The Northern Territories Dispute and Russo-Japanese Relations

01/98    Trade Paper


Nimmo, William F.

Japan and Russia : a Reevaluation in the Post-Soviet Era

Westport, Connecticut : Greenwood Press, c1994


"Northern Territories" and Beyond: Russian, Japanese, and American Perspectives
Edited by James E. Goodby, Vladimir I. Ivanov, and Nobuo Shimotomai

Under the Auspices of the United States Institute of Peace

Westport, Conn. 1995.


Rees, David,

The Soviet seizure of the Kuriles

New York : Praeger, 1985





Recommended Websites

Japan-Russia Relations (Territorial Issues)
Japan's Northern Territories Contents Preface A History of the Territorial Boundaries Between Japan and Russia World War II and the Origins of the Northern Territories Issue Negotiations Toward the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty

Secret of Sakhalin Island
With Kuril Archipelago, Sakhalin Island is one of the territories disputed between Japan and Russia for a long time. The most of materials exposed here are unknown in the western literature.

The Northern Territories in International Politics
JAPAN ECHO Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 1976 The Northern Territories in International Politics SASE Masamori THE HIRASAWA THESIS Since Japan is a land of free public opinion, the views that have been advanced on the issue of the northern territories have


"Northern Territories" and Beyond -- Russian, Japanese, and American Perspectives
A comprehensive examination of the past, present, and future of Russian-Japanese relations.


December 2000 Japan-Russia Foreign Ministers' Meeting Japan-Russia Relations Overview Overview of Japan-Russia relations (Diplomatic Bluebook 2000) Economic Relations Japan's Assistance for Russia (April 2000) Progress of Implementation of the Hashi


BBC News | Despatches | Russia and Japan's island row
Russia's president is to meet Japan's prime minister to discuss four disputed islands that have left the two countries in an official state of war. Juliet Hindell reports from the port of Nemuro.

Building a New Japan-Russia Relationship
JAPAN ECHO Vol. 24, No. 5, December 1997 Building a New Japan-Russia Relationship HAKAMADA Shigeki Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryûtarô and Russian President Boris Yeltsin met on the morning of June 20, the first day of the Denver Summit of th

Japan and Russia -- A Reevaluation in the Post-Soviet Era
An examination of the Japanese and Soviet attempts to resolve their outstanding differences.

Historical Details
Russia-Japan Treaty of Amity The Russia-Japan Treaty of Amity was signed in Shimoda, Izu, in 1855.Under this treaty, the border of Japan and Russia was established betweenthe islands of Etorofu and Urup.It was confirmed that the islands to the south

Stewart, Gwendolyn, Russia Redux, Chapter 2 (the People's Choice),                                                                                                         











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[1] The Times of India, 19.02.2001

[2] Although it was in 1886 only when Hokkaido and the islands of Kunashir, Etorofu and Shikotan officially stopped being regarded by Tokyo as colonies and were reorganized into regular prefectures. – A.A.


[3] Japan-Russia Relations: Territorial Issues. Tokyo, Ministry of foreign Afairs, 1999

[4] Lensen, George A., Strange Neutrality. Ref. from: Rees David, The Soviet Seisure of the Kuriles, N.Y., 1985, p. 35.

[5] Yalta Papers, pp. 894-4, Ref. from: Rees David, The Soviet Seisure of the Kuriles, N.Y., 1985, pp. 62-3.


[6] Bohlen, Charles E. Wittness to History, 1929-1969, N.Y., 1973, p. 195, Ref. from: Rees David, The Soviet Seisure of the Kuriles, N.Y., 1985, pp. 61.

[7] Izvestia, May 13,1992, Ref. from: Nimmo, William, F., Japan and Russia: A Reevaluation in the Post-Soviet Era, Westpoint, 1994, p. 27

[8] Nimmo, William, F., Japan and Russia: A Reevaluation in the Post-Soviet Era, Westpoint, 1994, p. 26


[9] John Foster Dulles Papers, Princeton University Library, Princeton, N.J., Ref. from: Rees David, The Soviet Seisure of the Kuriles, N.Y., 1985, p.94.

[10] By that time China had its own unresolved territorial dispute with the USSR ( A.A.)

[11] Japan Times Weekly, Apr.29-May 5, 1991, p.1

[12] ITAR-TASS, Oct.14, 1993

[13] Basing on the information provided by the ministry, in 1993 there were at least 7690 cases when Japanese vessels entered Russian territorial waters without permission. A.A.

[14] “No-tie Summit” was one of Boris Yeltsin’s personal “diplomatic inventions”, A.A.

[15] ITAR-TASS, Apr.20, 1998

[16] ITAR-TASS, Nov.14, 1998

[17] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline Vol. 5, No. 22, Part I, 1 February 2001

[18] RFE/RL Newsline Vol. 5, No. 39, Part I, 26 February 2001

[19] RFE/RL Newsline Vol. 5, No. 27, Part I, 8 February 2001,

[20] Solzjhenitsyn, Alexander, The Fall of Russia, Moscow, 1998, p.46

[21] Japan's Northern Territories, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Tokyo,1999, pp.1-2

[22] Nimmo, William, F., Japan and Russia: A Reevaluation in the Post-Soviet Era, Westpoint, 1994, p. 135

[23] Ibid., p.135