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Territorial DisputesJapan has territorial issues with three of its neighbours. Each and every instance seems intractable, and each is a major issue in Japan’s relations with those neighbours. North of Hokkaido, Japan claims the four islands that it calls the ‘Northern Territories’. To Japan’s northwest is Takeshima, claimed by the South Koreans. West of Japan is the Senkakus, which China claims. Nearby lie lucrative gas fields that could ease the burden of energy security on both sides.

This post is the first of three that examine the territorial disputes of Japan. To start off the series, we will examine the dispute between Russia and Japan over The Northern Territories, first looking at the origins of the dispute in the wake of Japan’s defeat in 1945, then how the issue affects the countries today, and how it might continue.

The Northern Territories

Northern Territories

The Northern Territories (北方領土 – hoppou ryoudo) consist of four territories, northeast of the island of Hokkaido: the Habomai archipelago – 歯舞群島 (Хабомай), Shikotan – 色丹島 (Шикотан), Kunashiri – 国後島 (Кунашир – Kunashir), and Etorofu – 択捉島 (Итуруп – Iturup). They are also known as the Southern Kuril Islands (南千島 – minami chishima).


The dispute is a direct result of the Second World War. When Japan surrendered, Soviet troops had island-hopped their way down the Kurils, preparing to invade Hokkaido. Stalin announced that the Kurils and the southern half of Sakhalin Island would be in Soviet hands. After the Treaty of San Francisco of 1951, the document that attempted to tie up the loose ends of Japan’s Greater East Asia War (大東亜戰争 – daitouasensou), the islands were incorporated into the USSR. The treaty included (Ch. 2, Art. 2[c]): “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Kurile Islands, and to that portion of Sakhalin and the islands adjacent to it over which Japan acquired sovereignty as a consequence of the Treaty of Portsmouth of 5 September 1905.” However, the Soviet Union attended but did not sign the treaty, so their incorporation was subject to dispute. Furthermore, the USSR (or later, Russia) did not sign any formal settlement treaty with Japan so the issue persists.

International Treaties

As the Treaty of San Francisco saw Japan renouncing its gains from the Treaty of Portsmouth, one has to look further back to find a standing territorial agreement between Russia and Japan. Article 2 of the Treaty of Shimoda, 1855, states: “Henceforth the border between Japan and Russia will pass between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu. The whole island of Etorofu belongs to Japan and the whole island of Uruppu, and the Kurile Islands to the north of the island of Uruppu constitute possessions of Russia. As regards the island of Karafuto (Sakhalin), it remains unpartitioned between Japan and Russia, as has been the case up to this time.

Even since the Treaty of Shimoda, the northern borders of Japan shifted several times. In 1875, Russia ceded its claim to all of the Kurils in exchange for control of Sakhalin. The Treaty of Portsmouth, 1905 (settling the Russo-Japanese War), later renounced in the Treaty of San Francisco, gave Japan control of the portion of Sakhalin below the 50th Parallel (to take the modern parlance; the latitude 50 degrees North of the equator). The Soviet Union’s advancement at the end of the Second World War has stood until this day.

Intentions of the Allies in WWII

There is a tension in the conduct of the Grand Alliance during the Second World War. It is hypocritical in nature and thus is worth exploring as the origins of the dispute truly lie within. The first facet of the tension is the irridentism enshrined in the Atlantic Charter, 1941, to which the Soviets gave their full agreement to:

The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.

First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;

Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.

This was further reiterated in the Cairo Declaration, 1943: “The Three Great Allies are fighting this war to restrain and punish the aggression of Japan. They covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion. It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China. Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed. The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.

This is in contrast with the agreement eventually made at the Yalta Conference, 1945, where Roosevelt promised Stalin Sakhalin and the Kurils in exchange for Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific. This agreement is enshrined in Article 2 (a): “the southern part of Sakhalin as well as all the islands adjacent to it shall be returned to the Soviet Union”, and Article 3: “The Kurile Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union”.

The Potsdam Declaration, to which the Japanese capitulated in their surrender, stated in Article 8: “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine“. The tension here should be evident. Japan did not take the Kurils and southern Sakhalin from the USSR or anyone else as part of the Greater East Asia War (I use this term to encompass the scope of the Second Sino-Japanese War and Second World War in the Pacific, and I know of the negative connotations associated with it). Instead, Japan’s claims to the Kurils in international agreements at least, spans back to 1855, and Sakhalin to 1905. The Cairo Declaration denounced territorial expansion, but the determination at Yalta effectively allowed Soviet expansion up to the Habomais.

The Treaty of San Francisco

So, back to the Treaty of San Francisco around which the controversy stands. John Dulles, later to be US Secretary of State at the time, reported in an announcement on the conference that:

The Potsdam Surrender Terms constitute the only definition of peace terms to which, and by which, Japan and the Allied Powers as a whole are bound. There have been some private understandings between some Allied Governments; but by these Japan was not bound, nor were other Allies bound. Therefore, the treaty embodies article 8 of the Surrender Terms which provided that Japanese sovereignty should be limited to Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and some minor islands. The renunciations contained in article 2 of chapter II strictly and scrupulously conform to that surrender term.

Some question has been raised as to whether the geographical name “Kurile Islands” mentioned in article 2 (c) includes the Habomai Islands. It is the view of the United States that it does not.

The Soviet’s delegate, Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko, later to be Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, announced:

The rights of the Soviet Union to the southern part of the Sakhalin Island and all the islands adjacent to it, as well as to the Kurile Islands, which are at present under the sovereignty of the Soviet Union, are equally indisputable.

Thus, while resolving the territorial questions in connection with the preparation of a peace treaty with Japan, there should not be any lack of clarity if we are to proceed from the indisputable rights of states to territories which Japan got hold of by the force of arms.

Complaining of the first draft said:

Similarly, by attempting to violate grossly the sovereign rights of the Soviet Union regarding Southern Sakhalin and the islands adjacent to it, as well as the Kurile Islands already under the sovereignty of the Soviet Union, the draft also confines itself to a mere mention of the renunciation by Japan of rights, title and claims to these territories and makes no mention of the historic appurtenance of these territories and the indisputable obligation on the part of Japan to recognize the sovereignty of the Soviet Union over these parts of the territory of the USSR.

Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida recognised a flaw in the Gromyko’s claims:

With respect to the Kuriles and South Sakhalin, I cannot yield to the claim of the Soviet Delegate that Japan had grabbed them by aggression.

“At the time of the opening of Japan, her ownership of two islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri of the South Kuriles was not questioned at all by the Czarist government. But the North Kuriles north of Urruppu and the southern half of Sakhalin were areas open to both Japanese and Russian settlers. On May 7, 1875 the Japanese and Russian Governments effected through peaceful negotiations an arrangement under which South Sakhalin was made Russian territory, and the North Kuriles were in exchange made Japanese territory. But really, under the name of “exchange” Japan simply ceded South Sakhalin to Russia in order to settle the territorial dispute. It was under the Treaty of Portsmouth of September 5, 1905 concluded through the intermediary of President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States that South Sakhalin became also Japanese territory.

“Both the Kuriles and South Sakhalin were taken unilaterally by the Soviet Union as of September 20, 1945, shortly after Japan’s surrender.

Even the islands of Habomai and Shikotan, constituting part of Hokkaido, one of Japan’s four main islands, are still being occupied by Soviet forces simply because they happened to be garrisoned by Japanese troops at the time when the war ended.

However, it should be recognised that the first attack of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 was launched by Japan. The attack on Port Arthur was similar to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese issued an ultimatum on the 6th February 1904, and attacked three hours prior to issuance of a declaration of war on the 10th. Thus Russia does believe Japan’s gains during the Treaty of Portsmouth to be the result of aggression.

Yet all this is irrelevant in the context of the treaty, which in Article 25 states:

For the purposes of the present Treaty the Allied Powers shall be the States at war with Japan, or any State which previously formed a part of the territory of a State named in Article 23, provided that in each case the State concerned has signed and ratified the Treaty. Subject to the provisions of Article 21, the present Treaty shall not confer any rights, titles or benefits on any State which is not an Allied Power as herein defined; nor shall any right, title or interest of Japan be deemed to be diminished or prejudiced by any provision of the Treaty in favor of a State which is not an Allied Power as so defined.

Thus as a non-signatory, Russia is not conferred “any rights, titles or benefits” from the Treaty. The problem is that Japan renounced the territories, so it is unclear what status the Kurils now have.

Since San Francisco

In 1956, the Soviets approached the Japanese with a view to resolving the Kurils dispute. In the joint declaration between both governments, Article 9 states:

Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics agree to continue, after the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, negotiations for the conclusion of a peace treaty.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, desiring to meet the wishes of Japan and taking into consideration the interests of Japan, agrees to hand over to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan. However, the actual handing over the these islands to Japan shall take place after the conclusion of a peace treaty between Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

However the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between Japan and the United States, which strengthened the faltering ties between the US and Japan caused some reconsideration in the Soviet camp. A memorandum from the Soviets in response to the signing of this treaty read:

But the Soviet Union certainly cannot ignore such a step as Japan’s conclusion of a new military treaty which undermines the basis for peace in the Far East and creates obstacles to the development of Soviet-Japanese relations. A new situation has formed in relation to the fact that this treaty actually deprives Japan of independence and that foreign troops stationed in Japan as a result of Japan’s surrender remain on Japanese territory. This situation makes it impossible for the Soviet Government to fulfill its promises to return the islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan.

It is because the Soviet Government met Japan’s wishes and took into consideration the interests of Japan and the peace-loving intentions expressed by the Japanese Government during the Soviet-Japanese negotiations that it agreed to hand over such islands to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty.

But since the new military treaty signed by the Japanese Government is directed against the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Government cannot contribute to extending the territory available to foreign troops by handing over such islands to Japan.

Thus, the Soviet Government finds it necessary to declare that the islands of Habomai and Shikotan will be handed over to Japan, as was stated in the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of October 19, 1956, only if all foreign troops are withdrawn from Japan and a Soviet-Japanese peace treaty is signed.

The Japanese were incensed at this statement, replying:

It is extremely incomprehensible that in its latest memorandum, the Soviet Government is connecting the issue of the revised Japan-US Security Treaty with the issue of handing over the islands of Habomai and Shikotan. As regards the islands of Habomai and Shikotan, the Joint Declaration by Japan and the Soviet Union states the following clearly: “the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, desiring to meet the wishes of Japan and taking into consideration the interests of Japan, agrees to hand over to Japan the islands of Habomai and Shikotan. However, the actual handing over of these islands to Japan shall take place after the conclusion of a peace treaty between Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

This Joint Declaration is an international agreement regulating the foundations of the relationship between Japan and the Soviet Union. It is an official international document which has been ratified by the highest organs of both countries. It is needless to say that the contents of this solemn international undertaking cannot be changed unilaterally. Moreover, since the current Japan-U.S. Security Treaty which is valid indefinitely already existed and foreign troops were present in Japan when the Joint Declaration by Japan and Soviet Union was signed, it must be said that the Declaration was signed on the basis of these facts. Consequently, there is no reason that the agreements in the Joint Declaration should be affected in any way.

“The Government of Japan cannot approve of the Soviet attempt to attach new conditions for the provisions of the Joint Declaration on the territorial issue and thereby to change the contents of the Declaration. Our country will keep insisting on the reversion not only of the islands of Habomai and Shikotan but also of the other islands which are inherent parts of Japanese territory.

The post-Soviet Russian position was clarified in a letter from Boris Yeltsin in 1992:

It is well-known that the main obstacle to the conclusion of this treaty is the issue of the demarcation of borders between Russia and Japan. This problem has a long history, and it has lately attracted broad attention and provoked diverse feelings among citizens of Russia. In approaching this issue, we will be guided by the principles of justice and humanism, and we will firmly defend the interests and dignity of Russians including those of the inhabitants of the Southern Kuriles. I assure you that no inhabitant of the Southern Kuriles will see their future ruined. Their socio-economic and property interests will be fully provided for taking into account the emerging historical realities.

Finally, in 2001 at Irkutsk, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and President Vladimir Putin made some progress and returned to the 1956 Joint Statement as the benchmark of their relations:

Both parties,

The Current Day

The dispute is still unresolved. Efforts have been made to implement joint economic activity, allow visits for Japanese citizens, and even push towards a peace settlement, but Russian military bases remain on the islands and Japan still covets them.

Japanese fishing boats often stray into the Russian zone of control (by accident or design is a question I cannot answer for sure). Last summer, a Japanese fishing boat lost a man to Russian gunfire after straying into Russian seas. The other three crew members were detained and two were later released. However, the captain was held until October after being fined for poaching (500,000 rubles – over 2 million yen, $18,000).

A few months ago, Foreign Minister Taro Aso suggested the dispute be resolved with a Solomon-like division. However, this did not gain much favour in the Russian camp and so was rejected.

Breaking Down the Claims

What is at stake for both sides? For Russia, the matter is fairly straightforward: territory. The international system does not take to territorial disputes very well as the status quo is nearly always favoured. With the territory, Russia has secured military outposts and fishing villages, as well as a further projection into the Pacific. Alongside this is the issue of pride and prestige, both of which will be hit by a relinquishing of the islands.

However, on the flip side, should Russia capitulate with Japanese claims, Japan might be far more inclined to increase its economic ties in the Russian Far East, as well as provide a basis for better security relations (although it has been said that some forces within Japan prefer the issue to be unsettled as the status quo favours dependence on the US). It would also allow Russian forces to be allocated somewhere more useful.

For Japan, the stakes are more marked. They were settled by Japanese families and according to Buddhist tradition, their graves remain there, difficult to reach during times of remembrance, such as O-bon. They offer fishing stocks for the fisherman of Hokkaido and would offer more open passage to the Pacific from the opposite side of Hokkaido. The historical claims blend into the political one, and the continuing occupation of the islands by the Russians is an open wound in Japan’s pride and between their relations. Japan wants its borders to reach Urup, as they used to. They will not take a compromise, and given the inertia of territorial hand-overs, a resolution seems very far off.

The islands were homelands of the aboriginal Ainu, incorporated (forcefully) into Japan. The Ainu Council has requested that autonomy be given to one of the islands so that the Ainu people could live there and preserve their culture. It goes without saying that this plea fell on deaf ears.

The time will come for the countries to make headway on their peace agreement, and that cannot be done until the dispute is settled. As the former inhabitants of the islands pass into history, there might be more willingness on behalf of the Japanese for negotiations, but should Japan lose out on this?

The islands that Japan claims were Japan’s since the Meiji Restoration and remained so until the Soviets took them by force. Soviet intransigence made the simple issue intractable. The islands, in my opinion, belong to Japan. I say this not as an apologist for Japan, but as someone who believes justice is lacking in this issue.
Next Time: Territorial disputes with Korea.

Finally: My apologies for the gap in posting, I’ve been pretty busy this week.



  1. Interesting piece! I’ve thought over this quite a few times myself. I find that I agree with the Kuril Islands being Japanese territory, but the Senkakus seem to be Chinese in my opinion. Here the battle seems less about historical ownership rather than battle over natural resources. Japan didn’t really historically own these areas as much as they annexed them from Okinawa and China. I’m not sure who occupied the Senkakus, but I’m confident that Tokugawa Japan did not rule them.

  2. Don’t jump the gun :-P To be honest, I won’t know for sure until I get elbow-deep, but initially I’m inclined to agree… But as I said, that is something for another time ;)

    Thanks for popping by!

  3. Hello! do you have any idea where to find the full Treaty of Shimoda and the Treaty of St. Petersburg regarding the issue of the dispute of the islands here on the internet? I’m working on my thesis regarding this topic and it will really help me a lot. thanks!

  4. I’m afraid not, the only source I could find is MOFA’s Joint Compendium of Documents… Find it here.

  5. Dear ..,

    What do you think is a barrier to regional cooperation among East Asian countries?

  6. A great question. I can’t give a definitive answer although I will try to put forward my tuppence worth:

    Assuming we are discussing East Asia as Japan, the Koreas, China, and Taiwan (perhaps even Mongolia), I believe it a mix of the co-existence of (relatively) liberal regimes with illiberal regimes, China’s regional hegemony vs US global hegemony, and the sense that WWII has a lingering effect (regardless of any objective reality – if indeed there is such a thing).

    Before we see firm regional cooperation, there would have been be increasing liberalisation in North Korea (and perhaps continuingly so in China), and the history issue would have to be dropped (either by minimising national voices or through some joint recognition that the past is the past and the future is what everyone should be concerned with). The rival hegemonies issue is insoluble, but needn’t rule out greater cooperation.

    However, we must also recognise and expand the extant cooperation. There is some of it going on, and that will undoubtedly form the building blocks for further work.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Blog of Note: “Desired Ground” Series by I, Shingen Posted March 3, 2007 The Blog I, Shingen has started up a three-part series Japan’ territorial disputes. […]

  2. By Desired Ground - Part Two « I, Shingen on 03 Mar 2007 at 11:47 pm

    […] rocks are the subject of such controversy. How does each side ground their claims? As with the Northern Territories, the issue is complex. Japan had annexed the rocks in January 1905, eight months prior to the […]

  3. […] on the history of these territorial disputes, check out these posts at my old blog: Desired Ground: Part One (Northern Territories), Part Two (Takeshima), and Part Three (Senkakus) Share and […]

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