Global Insider: Japan-Russia Territorial Disputes

The leaders of Japan and Russia met on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Toronto late last month to discuss ways in which they could move forward with negotiations over a longstanding territorial dispute over the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomais. A week later, Russian military forces carried out a drill on one of the disputed islands, leading Japan to express its objections. In an e-mail interview, Dr. Alexander Bukh, associate professor at Japan's Tsukuba University and author of "Japan's National Identity and Foreign Policy: Russia as Japan's 'Other,'" explains the historical context for the ongoing territorial dispute between Russia and Japan.

WPR: What is the background of the current dispute?

Alexander Bukh: While both sides tend to present the dispute in historical terms, its origins are purely political. None of the three bilateral border demarcation treaties -- 1855, 1875 and 1905 -- that modified and defined Japan's border with its northern neighbor, ever placed the four disputed islands under Russian jurisdiction. The dispute emerged in the context of World War II and the Cold War. Its most visible roots can be traced to the February 1945 Yalta Summit, at which it was agreed that the Soviet Union would get the rights to Southern Sakhalin and the Kurils -- without specifying the exact scope of the Kuril chain -- in exchange for the Red Army's participation in the war against Japan. The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty between the Allies and Japan states in Article 2(c) that "Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands," again without specifying the scope of the Kurils. This ambiguity seems to reflect the Cold War interests of the United States, which was interested in preventing complete normalization of bilateral relations between Japan and the Soviet Union. There is also some evidence that suggests the U.S. traded the Kurils for Soviet support in the U.N. Security Council for U.S. control of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Japan's current official interpretation of the San Francisco Treaty argues that Kunashiri and Etorofu are Southern Chishima -- the Japanese name for the Kurils -- while Shikotan and the Habomais are part of Hokkaido. Hence, not all of the disputed islands are part of the Kurils renounced in the treaty. This interpretation goes back to the first attempt to normalize bilateral relations between Japan and the Soviet Union in 1955-56.

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