In 1855, Japan
established diplomatic contact for the first time, and set their boundary between the northern islands of Uruppu and Etorofu. At the time, the Kuril Islands
and the large island of Sakhalin
were being developed slowly by both nations. Twenty years later, Sakhalin became a Russian territory and the entire Kuril chain became a Japanese territory. Then, after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War
in 1905, Russia ceded the southern half of Sakhalin to Japan.
The U.S.S.R. signed a five-year neutrality pact with Japan in 1941, but broke that pact and attacked Japan in 1945, shortly before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent Japanese surrender. When the Allies divided Japan up among the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviets occupied both Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Less than one month after the surrender, Soviet forces moved beyond their boundary and occupied the Northern Territories. To compound the problem, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin ordered that the 17,000 residents of the four islands be deported to the Japanese mainland, and authorized Russian settlement of the islands. That year, the Soviet Union won back both Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands in the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
The subsequent conflicts of the Cold War resulted in a major legal problem. Japan, an ally and primary military base of the United States, never signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union: instead, it signed a “Joint Declaration” in 1956 that would give Japan control of Shikotan and Habomai at the conclusion of peace treaty, but leave Etorofu and Kunashiri in dispute. As a result of having no binding treaty, none of the islands were ever officially recognized as Japanese or Soviet territory. Between 1956 and 1991, there were several meetings between Japanese and Soviet officials, and the Soviet Union used the Territories as a bargaining chip against the United States when dealing with the Japanese government , but the Joint Declaration stayed in place.
Mikhail Gorbachev finally made a first step towards a binding peace in 1991, when he visited Japan and called for a “peace treaty . . . marking the final resolution of war-related issues.” The Soviet Union fell shortly afterward, and in 1993 Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Japan and signed an agreement known as the Tokyo Declaration, pledging a final peace treaty between Japan and Russia by the year 2000. Although subsequent meetings at Moscow, Denver, Krasnoyarsk, Kawana, and Okinawa never achieved their ultimate goal of peace, Russia agreed to allow people living in Japan and the Northern Territories to visit each other without visas, and to withdraw the majority of their 3,500-man military force from the Territories, leaving only a small border patrol force. The most recent high-level meeting on the issue was held between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Premier Mori Yoshiro in Tokyo on September 6, 2000, although no conclusive or binding agreements were reached after three days of negotiations.
An official resolution to the dispute is impossible until a peace treaty is signed between Russia and Japan, at which point Shikotan and Habomai will be relinquished to Japanese control. Japan has two options in negotiating the treaty: demanding the return of Etorofu and Kunashiri, thus placing the Northern Territories under complete Japanese control, or allowing both islands to remain under Russian control.
On a purely socioeconomic level, the Northern Territories hold very little value to either state. They are entirely Russian-inhabited, and their population consists almost entirely of border patrol and military personnel. The true value of the Territories is one of pride. Etorofu and Kunashiri were first colonized by the Japanese, and the Japanese therefore maintain that they have the right to self determination:
In concluding the Treaty of Commerce in 1855, both Czar Nicholas I and Commodore Putyatin . . . recognized that the southernmost boundary of Russian territory was Uruppu Island, and that south of Etorofu was Japanese territory. . . . These islands, which are so close to Japan that they can be seen with the naked eye from Hokkaido, hardly seem to require any claim of discovery. . . . Postwar disposition of territories should be made with a peace treaty and it is not permissible under international law for one nation to make unilateral decisions regarding disposition of another’s territories without that party’s consent.
The Russian position has been a simple one: “border demarcation,” military withdrawal, and bilateral exchanges. Russia (and, earlier, the Soviet Union) cited the Yalta Agreement
and the Potsdam Proclamation
as the basis for their occupation. In the Yalta Agreement, the Soviet Union was guaranteed possession of Sakhalin and the entire Kuril island chain (including the Northern Territories) after the war’s end. At Potsdam, the Allies (minus the Soviet Union, which was not involved in the Pacific War at the time) declared that Japanese sovereignty would be limited to the four primary islands of Japan as well as “such minor islands as we determine.”
The legality of the Soviet occupation, however, is debated. Japan maintains that they were not aware of the secret Yalta Agreement at the time it was signed, and that the Soviet Union was not a party to the Potsdam Declaration at the time it was signed: therefore, neither document can be used as a binding international treaty with Japan.
Either partitioning of the Territories will mean very little to the international system, but will matter infinitely to both Russia and Japan. Both are suffering a great deal of societal upheaval. Russian communism and the Japanese “bubble economy” collapsed entirely during the 1990s, and shortly afterwards both governments suffered a great deal of scandal and image reduction. Now, they must continually seek a nationalist boost to restore the faith of their people. Strangely enough, the Kuril conflict has accomplished this to an extent. It has improved both states’ images to their own people without any major violent incidents (Japanese and Russian naval vessels exchanged gunfire on April 19, 2000, but this was later determined to be an error by both sides, and relations were ultimately unaffected). Although xenophobia has proven a minor cost in this policy, it achieves far more than it denies the people of Japan and Russia.
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