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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

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Summit with Russia called by Japan’s Prime Minister to solve a four-island dispute

(14 January 2016)

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has called for a summit with Russia to discuss the sovereignty dispute over an island chain that Japan calls Northern Territories and Russia the Southern Kurils. More specifically these four islands are Iturup/Etorofu, Kunashir/Kunashiri, Shikotan and the rocky Habomai islets.

The border between Japan and Russia was originally established by the Treaty of Shimoda in 1855. In this treaty, the two countries agreed that all four islands were Japanese territory and they remained so for the next 90 years. This changed with the entry of Russia into WWII in 1945 when the Soviet Union occupied the four islands. The Soviets then deported the existing Japanese population and officially incorporated the islands into the USSR in 1947.

According to James D. J. Brown, an expert whose book Japan, Russia and their Territorial Dispute, is set to be published in March 2016, "supporters of this position can also point to the fact that it was formally agreed between US President Roosevelt and Soviet leader Stalin at the Yalta Conference that, in return for joining the war against Japan, 'the Kuril Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union’”. From the Japanese perspective, however, there was nothing legitimate about the occupation of these islands, which Tokyo regards as a separate geographic entity "inherent" to Japanese territory.

A peace treaty was never signed between the two countries. In the mid-1950s, however, a possible deal emerged by which the Soviet side offered to transfer the two smaller islands (Shikotan and the Habomai) to Japan as a gesture of goodwill. The Japanese side ultimately decided the offer was insufficient.

Possible compromises have been explored by Vindu Mai Chotani, a researcher at the New Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation. These include the equal division of the islands’ landmass, allowing Russia to keep its submarine detection center or a base in Southern Kunashir in order to protect their strategic nuclear submarine center in the Sea of Okhotsk or the joint administration of the islands.

Several experts’ analysis however point to the difficulties preventing the two countries from achieving an agreement.

Brown explains how Russia is likely to decline any deal due to strong nationalist public opinion towards the islands, Japan’s tight links to the US following the Ukraine conflict (when Japan followed the US in introducing sanctions against Russia) and the fact that there are around 17,000 Russian citizens living on the islands.

Analyst James L. Schoff, Japan expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, confirms this view: "Japan is unlikely to accept anything less than a major concession by Moscow about its ownership of all (or at least most) of the Northern Territories, even if any transfer of administration gets pushed off by decades. And Russia will likely feel that any short-term gain in terms of relief from international isolation will not be worth the long-term political cost of 'giving up' those islands to Japan."


Will Japan and Russia finally resolve their territorial dispute? 5th January 2016 . DW