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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (September 10, 2004)

Northern Territories Dispute still Divides Japan and Russia

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

Just as economic ties between Moscow and Tokyo are beginning to pick up momentum, Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, has strained relations with a high-profile five-hour voyage around a disputed chain of remote islands claimed by both countries. The excursion marks the first time a Japanese premier has come so close to the Russian-held territory, irritating Moscow which dispatched a warship to observe the proceedings.

Some analysts fear that if he is not careful, Koizumi could ignite nationalist passions in both nations. However, Japanese public reaction to last Thursday's visit has been decidedly subdued, suggesting nationalist sentiment about the Russian-controlled islands is waning. This situation creates an opportunity for a bilateral resolution, provided both Koizumi and Russian President Vladimir Putin can overcome nationalist forces at home.

However, after the recent terrorist atrocities in the town of Beslan in the southern republic of North Ossetia, Putin may not be in the mood to give up any territory or sovereignty. He has already taken a tough-line with European leaders who have questioned his tactics in Chenchnya and according to Russia newspaper reports Putin's expected visit to Japan next year may now be cancelled.

A Hokkaido-based academic told Asia Times On-line, "After the terrorist blood-bath we have witnessed in Russia in recent weeks, the trip is more likely to inflame relations than create the conditions for a bilateral settlement."

The remote wind-swept archipelago, located just off the eastern tip of Japan's mighty northern island of Hokkaido, is known locally as the Northern Territories and called the Southern Kuriles in Russia. It consists of three large islands, Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan, and the smaller Habomai group of islets. All were seized by the Soviet Union in 1945 and are located in an area believed to be rich in natural resources.

Japan has never renounced its claim to the islands and the ownership issue has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding any peace treaty to formally end hostilities, a situation which technically leaves them still at war.

Koizumi's maritime excursion generated media speculation that it might spark a wave of Japanese nationalism, but for most ordinary Japanese the dispute appears to be of little concern. One resident who lives near the Russian-occupied islands observed, "Nowadays, I don't think most people care that much about whether we get these islands back or not."

A greater risk appears to lie in Koizumi's provocative actions stirring up friction at a time of Russian national crisis. His behavior could inadvertently shift Russo-Japanese relations into an unsatisfactory configuration in which the two neighbors continue to develop strong economic ties but lack a good political partnership. Under the Koizumi administration a similarly undesirable state of affairs has already afflicted Sino-Japanese relations, which are currently locked in an apparently permanent state of political tension.

On the positive side, Koizumi's territorial foray might be a means for him to neutralize vocal nationalist elements in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), ahead of a hoped for agreement that will finally remove the long-standing bilateral thorn.

Economic logic dictates that it is in Japan's long-term interest to improve ties with Russia by settling the dispute. In fact, the country's future energy needs may one day depend on closer ties with Moscow. The Kremlin recently decided to build a Siberian oil pipeline to the Pacific port of Nakhodka, along a Tokyo-backed route, while Beijing had favored a pipeline to Daqing in northwest China. The Nakhodka pipeline will enable Russia to export huge quantities of oil to Japan, strengthening economic ties.

Geo-politically considerations also favor stronger Russo-Japanese ties which could provide the two neighbors with a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.

In Japan, public opinion will ultimately help or hinder an effective resolution to the decades-old territorial problem. From this perspective, present indications point to Tokyo preparing for compromise deal.

Territorial dispute has limited appeal
Nationally, the return of the remote Northern Territories does not arouse any real sense of excitement. While the issue certainly fevers the blood of a small band of ultra-nationalists and some right-wing politicians, in general ordinary people are just not that interested.

In Hokkaido, which is situated nearest to the disputed archipelago, the issue divides the huge island-territory along geographical lines. Support for reintegration of the Russian-held chain is concentrated mainly in the east of Hokkaido around the remote cities of Nemuro and Kushiro. Nemuro, the city closest to the Northern Territories, is the home to the largest group of former residences.

About 17,000 Japanese were living on the islands at the time of the Soviet invasion in August 1945, which forced them to flee. Today, it is estimated that about 14,000 Russians eke out a meager existence on the wind-battered islands, most relying on fishing to sustain them.

In Kushiro, located 125 kilometers down the coast from Nemuro, support for a return is especially strong amongst the city's fishing community, which would benefit financially if Japan owned the rich fishing grounds around the islands.

Former Northern Territory residents living in Nemuro, and their supporters, openly welcomed Koizumi's visit. At the start of his five-hour tour, a cheering group of them waved the premier off. They held up rising sun flags as he boarded a coast guard patrol boat in Nemuro's Hanasaki port.

One unidentified elderly man told NHK TV News, "I am very happy the prime minister has come here to support us."

Hiroshi Fujiwara, the Mayor of Nemuro city, was also upbeat about the visit. He told the press, "I feel certain that both domestically and internationally, the Northern Territories issue has been highlighted [by this visit]."

While Koizumi was able to see little of the fog-clad islands, he was himself highly visible to the national media. Wearing a dashing white coast-guard jacket, he nimbly strode around the wind-lashed vessel clutching a large pair of binoculars. After five hours at sea, he returned to Nemuro to meet former residents, their descendants and a band of supporters.

A resolute-sounding premier told the gathering of about 8000 people, "Without restoration of the four islands, we will not have a Japan-Russia peace treaty." For balance he added, "Restoration of the Northern Territories will not only benefit Japan, but Russia too."

However, he was vague about details, declining to fully accept the former residents' demand that the islands be returned all at once. He also did not give any timeline for resolving the dispute.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, he clarified his position, "I will not set a deadline or target date [for a return] but will try to make it as early as possible." These remarks dampened the hopes of many former residences.

Little enthusiasm about a return of the territories
In most of Hokkaido enthusiasm for getting back the Northern Territories is pretty lukewarm. In fact, in the big cities of Sapporo, Asahikawa and Hakodate it is extremely difficult to find anyone, apart from the odd ultra-rightist, who is passionate about the issue.

Furthermore, in Nemuro, Kushiro as well as the surrounding region solid support for a return appears to be confined to mainly elderly former residences, their families and the fishing community. On the whole, most people in the region are fairly indifferent to the dispute.

Mari Ito, a nurse in her mid-twenties from the town of Rausu located near one of the islands, told Asia Times On-line, "From Rausu you can see Kunashiri Island. We are taught in school that this land belongs to Japan and is part of our Northern Territories. Unlike many Japanese people, it is there physically in front of us to see with our own eyes. Even so, many young people feel a sense of separation from it. I myself do not really know anything about what it is really like over there and no Japanese people live there. If young people from this area feel removed from the place, then I guess on the mainland people feel even less of a connection."

Kumiko Fujiwara, a forty-something housewife from Kushiro, is not especially interested in the return of the islands. She told Asia Times On-line, "People of my generation do not feel strongly about the Northern Territories. You know, a lot of people do not really know anything about them as the Russians have had them since before I was born."

Akemi Iizawa, a young teacher from Nemoro, comments, "From Cape Nosappu [near Nemuro] you can easily see some of the islands, they are just a few kilometers away. But I do not think young people living in Nemuro actually think that much about them. We know the Japanese people who lived there were forced to leave by the Russians, but that was a long time ago and it feels like history to many people."

In Hokkaido's larger cities, people are much less enthusiastic and their views broadly reflect national opinion. Many are also skeptical about Koizumi's motives for coming on a high-profile day-trip to the region.

Masahiro, a teacher in Sapporo, who did not wish to give his family name, sums up the sentiment of many ordinary Hokkaido citizens. He says, "To be honest, I don't think people are that interested about these islands. Nemuro seems like a pretty distant place to me. In fact, I have never been there and those islands are even remoter. They always seem to have such terrible weather and are bitterly cold in winter. I just can't image anyone who would want to go to live out there. I mean, Nemuro is rapidly losing its population, people are moving away because of its isolation [from the rest of Hokkaido]. So, where are you going to find people to populate those islands?"

Even among Japanese who were forced to flee their homes by the Red Army in 1945, there is surprising little passion about getting the islands back.

Hiroshi Sakamoto, a retired Hokkaido government official, told Asia Times On-line, "I was born on Karafuto [a former Japanese territory on southern Sakhalin], but when I was an infant, my family had to flee as the Soviets occupied our home town [in 1945] and seized control of the entire island. We know we will never get that territory back. In many respects, the same is now probably true for the Northern Territories. Those islands rightfully should be returned to Japan, but after sixty years you get used to the fact that they probably will not. I think many of the older generation feel a deep sense of regret about this, but nevertheless accept it as a painful fact."

Sakamoto adds, "I would love to visit my birthplace [on Sakhalin], but it is just a dream. Koizumi is playing with our feelings with his visit, but I think most people in Hokkaido realize this. His trip was not for Japan or for Nemuro or for the Northern Territories. No, it was solely for publicity."

Settling the dispute will take time
Koizumi's political opponents also take a similarly negative view of his motives. Keiko Yamauchi, a former Hokkaido politician comments, "When I was a lawmaker, I was deeply involved with the Northern Territories issue and spent a lot of time listening to the opinions of the people of Nemuro. I learnt that there is no easy solution to this extremely complex problem."

She explains, "Many of the former residences of the islands still want to go back and by international law the territory belongs to Japan. However, the islands have now been in Russian possession for nearly sixty years. During that time, Russians have lived there and they now consider the place their home. Therefore, any genuine solution to this problem will have to involve communication and exchange between the former and present communities. The wishes of both peoples, Japanese and Russia, must not be ignored. We have already built up a lot of trust with various exchanges, but there is still a long way to go."

Since 1992, visa-less exchange trips between the citizens of the Russian-held islands and Hokkaido residents have been taking place. Russians also frequently visited Hokkaido for medical treatment. Environmentalists from both countries have proposed the establishment of a cross-border nature park.

Yamauchi is scathing of Koizumi's motivation for viewing the islands. She says, "Koizumi certainly will not solve this complex problem by dressing up like James Bond for the media and dancing up and down on the deck of a warship to please his ultra-rightwing buddies."

Japan wants to resolve islands dispute
While acknowledging the publicity aspect of the visit, most political analysts think Koizumi is serious about trying to resolve the territorial dispute. His trip is interpreted as an attempt to generate momentum ahead of next February's talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. By beating the nationalist drum now, Koizumi may be hoping that he can temporarily neutralize right-wing elements in his party while he searches for a compromise deal that will satisfy both sides.

Solving the problem and improving relations with Moscow is definitely in Japan's interest if it wishes to tap into Russia's extensive energy resources. There is also a growing desire in both countries to counter-balance China's ever expanding military and economic power in the region.

Partial return of territory an option An eventual solution will probably involve some kind of partial return of territory with perhaps an element of shared sovereignty. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Japan has put forward a range of proposals incorporating these concepts. During former Russian president Boris Yeltsin's visit to Japan in October 1993, an agreement was signed with Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa which pledged both sides to seeking a resolution of the dispute.

Since then Tokyo has suggested drawing a national borderline between Russia and the disputed territories, while granting Moscow the right to govern the islands for a lengthy period. In November 1997 during the Krasnoyarsk summit in Russia, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto put forward an idea under which Russia would acknowledge Japan's sovereignty over all the islands, but they would remain under Moscow's control for about 10 to 20 years.

In 2001, under Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori there were also discussions about returning the Habomai islets and Shikotan Island to Japan in parallel with separate talks on the issue of Kunashiri and Etorofu sovereignty. However, Russia has expressed little interest in any of these initiatives.

Judging from past negotiations, Moscow is only willing to agree to the return of the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan island. In fact, the return of these two has long been agreed by the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration which stipulates both territories will be returned to Japan upon the conclusion of a peace treaty. Thus, the core of the territorial issue lies with the return of Kunashiri and Etorofu. This explains Koizumi's reluctance to discuss the details of any potential agreement.

Terrorism may scupper an agreement
From a Japanese perspective an agreement seems possible with Koizumi keen to make his mark in history by resolving the issue. Should Moscow and Tokyo both be able to make the necessary concessions, then a permanent settlement could be reached. A peace treaty would certainly boost both countries' growing convergence of economic interests in the region.

However, following the latest upsurge in Chechen-related terrorism, giving up sovereignty and territory, even remote islands, may be too much for President Putin at this present juncture. As has happened in the past, attempts to settle this long-standing dispute may yet again flounder.

Professor Junichiro Fujiwara, a member of a Hokkaido-based regional research institute says, "The timing of Koizumi's visit is tragic. After the terrorist blood-bath we have witnessed in Russia in recent weeks, the trip is more likely to inflame relations than create the conditions for a bilateral settlement."

(This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 8 September 2004,, and is republished with permission. Copyright belongs to Asia Times Online Ltd.)

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