Then-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida shaking hands with President Vladimir Putin in 2016. Photo Credit: Newsweek Japan
On August 9, 1945, merely hours before the B-29 bomber Bockscar dropped the “Fat Man” on Nagasaki, the Soviet Union began its offensive against the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria. Within days, the imperial forces surrendered and ceded control of its former colonies to the Soviets. More than seventy-five years later, Japan and Russia are technically still at war, having yet to sign an official peace agreement. For the most part, though, the two countries had maintained a cordial relationship, conducting regular trade and diplomatic talks to bring a formal end to the war. Yet territorial disputes over the Kuril Islands – a small yet pivotal area in the North Pacific – have always hindered any genuine progress towards a resolution, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reversed much of the diplomatic progress made between the two countries since the end of World War II. With diplomatic and economic relations at their worst in nearly eight decades, and the territorial dispute at an impasse, will Japan and Russia ever find a way towards peace?
The Kuril Islands
In 1956, over a decade after Japan surrendered to the Allies, Tokyo and Moscow signed the Soviet-Japanese Joint Statement that formally ended hostilities and normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries. This document also demonstrated a commitment to continue negotiating an official peace treaty after which the Soviet Union would agree to transfer two of the Kuril Islands to Japan. The Kuril Islands lie between Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido and south of the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula, separating the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, and until 1945, when the Soviets seized the entire island chain, Japan controlled the four islands closest to Hokkaido. Despite Japan’s renouncement of the Kurils in the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, and the 1956 agreement with the USSR that restored diplomatic ties, Tokyo rejected Moscow’s offer to return two of these four islands claimed by the Japanese, as it merely covered 7% of the disputed territory. The disagreement over the status of these islands has persisted for nearly eight decades.
But why do these islands matter so much? For Japan, Russian possession of their Northern Territories represents a betrayal of the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda that established the islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu as part of Japanese territory and the unjust expulsion of thousands of Japanese citizens from their homes. Russia justifies its claim by arguing that the Allies granted the Soviet Union control over what it calls the Southern Kurils as part of the agreement at Yalta for the Soviet involvement in the Pacific War. The Kremlin considers any concession over these islands to the Japanese as sacrilege against the Soviet soldiers’ sacrifice in World War II.
Furthermore, the island chain has key features that have significant geopolitical and strategic implications for both countries. Because the strait between Kunashiri/Kunashir and Etorofu/Iturup does not freeze over, the Russian Pacific Fleet based in Vladivostok has easy access to the Pacific Ocean even during the winter. The islands also serve as a means of power projection that allows Russia to maintain much control over maritime traffic into the Arctic, where the melting sea ice has opened routes for more expedited commerce between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. For Japan, the resources found in the area could bear significant economic and strategic importance. Deposits of rhenium, one of the rarest and most dispersed metals on the planet, have been found on the island of Etorofu/Iturup and its use in jet engine turbines – such as those in the F-15 – presents a significant opportunity for the Japanese defense industry. Though unconfirmed, there are also speculations of offshore oil and gas reserves that could alleviate the energy security of resource-poor Japan and rob Russia of some its leverage. With these natural resources, Japanese control over the four disputed islands could drastically alter the power dynamics within the Pacific region.
Given the stakes of controlling these islands, it is hardly surprising that Japan and Russia have yet to successfully negotiate a peace agreement. Past administrations in both countries have attempted to break new ground in diplomatic talks and yet remained more or less unwavering in their position over the status of these islands. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, as the United States appeared to be entering a new era of friendship and cooperation with Russia, Tokyo and Moscow remained at a stalemate, unable to utilize the window of opportunity to come to an agreement. When Boris Yeltsin visited Japan in 1993, few Japanese officials expressed real optimism for a breakthrough, despite the common interest of both governments to improve relations. In Tokyo, the Liberal Democratic Party, then in the opposition, endeavored to spoil Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa’s efforts at reconciliation, while Yeltsin faced considerable domestic pressure in light of the recent storming of the Russian White House and subsequent government crackdown on the anti-reformist movement. Concessions over the Kurils would have further fueled Yeltsin’s opponents and exacerbated the political crisis.
After the Yeltsin years, the situation did not improve, as provocations sparked diplomatic protests that stalled negotiations. In 2004, the populist, maverick Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, notorious for his tendency to stir political controversy, inspected the island chain from a coastguard vessel only a year before President Putin was scheduled to visit Japan for the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Shimoda – a historic agreement that established trade relations between the two countries and granted Japanese control over the disputed islands. The dispute took a fatal turn in 2006 when Russian coastguards fatally shot a Japanese fisherman whose vessel strayed into disputed waters near the Habomai islets, prompting strong condemnation from Foreign Minister Taro Aso and buck-passing of blame between the two governments over the incident. Later, President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri/Kunashir in 2012, less than a month before participating in an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Tokyo, which incited the ire of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his government.
The relationship between Russia and Japan began to show signs of improvement in 2012, when both President Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to office and entered a phase of seemingly genuine rapprochement between the two countries. Abe traveled to Moscow in 2013 for the first top-level talks since 2005 and opened a new avenue for reconciliation and progress towards a formal peace treaty. After the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, Japan was looking for ways to diversify its energy supply, which also presented Russia with an economic opportunity to develop the liquefied natural gas infrastructure in its eastern territories. Furthermore, Abe saw Russia as an essential piece in counterbalancing growing Chinese assertiveness in the Pacific; in turn, despite its close political ties with Beijing, the Kremlin saw economic promise in closer ties with Japan as well, especially as its relationship with China was only beginning to bear tangible results at that point. However, the futility of Abe’s efforts became clear by 2016 when a two-day summit with Putin, that he had hoped would make considerable progress on the issue of the Kuril Islands, ended with the Russian president rejecting concessions that proposed the transfer of only two of the four disputed islands to Japan – a major compromise on Abe’s part. To add insult to injury, Putin demanded Japan’s recognition of Russia’s claim to all four islands, preventing any progress towards a deal by the 2019 G-20 summit in Tokyo. By the time Abe resigned from the premiership in 2020, his pet project to sign a formal peace treaty with Russia and restore control over some, if not all, of the disputed islands was left unfulfilled.
The War in Ukraine
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became more undeniable early this year, Abe’s reconciliatory approach no longer seemed tenable. Though mostly focused on Chinese aggression in the Pacific, the 2021 Defense of Japan White Paper highlighted concern over the strengthening of Russia’s military cooperation with China and their growing assertiveness in the Kurils, where the Russian armed forces deployed surface-to-air missile systems and conducted strategic nuclear force exercises the previous year. Alarm over Russia and China’s military alignment increased when in October 2021, a naval task force consisting of ten warships sailed through the Tsugaru Strait between Hokkaido and Honshu into the Western Pacific after conducting a joint exercise in the Sea of Japan. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force minesweepers and a P-3C Orion monitored the armada’s movements in the area, and while the ships stayed within the narrow international waterway, newly-elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government expressed concern over the brazen act that escalated tensions in the North Pacific.
Kishida found himself in a difficult position as the eventuality of Russian aggression against Ukraine became irrefutable. Abe’s diplomatic mission had not made any progress on the territorial dispute, but Japanese reliance on Russian energy expanded, with Moscow providing more than 12% of Japan’s thermal coal and a tenth of its liquefied natural gas supply. Despite possible consequences for its energy security, Japan quickly followed the United States and the European Union in issuing sanctions against key Russian industries and freezing the assets of government officials and oligarchs in response to the invasion. Moreover, Tokyo seems to be testing the limits of its pacifist constitution by sending bulletproof vests and helmets, and is considering a request from Kyiv to send a range of military equipment, including antitank weapons, ammunition and electronic radar. Yet these measures inevitably dashed any hope for resolution over the Kuril Islands. After Russia unilaterally suspended peace treaty talks in retaliation for Tokyo’s “anti-Russian position,” Kyodo News obtained a draft of Japan’s 2022 Diplomatic Bluebook that recharacterized the Russian presence in the Kurils as an “illegal occupation” for the first time since 2003 and reaffirmed the Northern Territories as an “inherent” part of Japanese territory.
The Future of the Japan-Russian Relationship
As long as Russian forces remain on Ukrainian soil and progress towards a permanent ceasefire stalls, Japan will likely remain in lockstep with the United States and the EU in punishing Russia for its growing list of transgressions in the region. Even Japan’s biggest advocate for rapprochement with Russia in recent years, Shinzo Abe, has changed his outlook on Japan’s security in regard to aggression by both Russia and China. In an interview, the former prime minister pointed to the Russian invasion as a clear sign that Japan needs to recalculate its national security outlook and seriously consider rearmament that includes a NATO-like arrangement with the United States to host or allow the transport of nuclear weapons on its territory. Such a pronouncement is hardly surprising from a hawkish leader whose core agenda since his first day in office was the amendment of Article 9, Japan’s anti-war clause, but the public remains firmly skeptical of full rearmament and nuclear-sharing, as demonstrated in their support for Kishida’s rejection of the suggestion. However, the Russian invasion has sparked debate over Japan’s readiness over a similar scenario of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or the disputed Senkaku Islands. For now, peace between Japan and Russia seems impossible. Yet the sanctions have inflicted devastating damage to the Russian economy and could have even more far-reaching consequences in the future, beyond the armed conflict with Ukraine. In a postwar, post-Putin Russia, there could be another window of opportunity for the two countries to see the beneficial tradeoff between Russian energy and Japanese technology and investments that have been overshadowed by the unfavorable political and social climate. Though Russia and China appear to be inseparable allies now, China’s strength and Russia’s weakening power could lead to clashes and a schism. One specific source of potential conflict is in the Arctic, where Russia enjoys significant advantage and dominance but is increasingly under threat from Chinese encroachment through its Polar Silk Road initiative. The Kremlin may find an alternative partnership with Japan a beneficial tool to balance the power dynamics in the Pacific and check growing Chinese influence encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence. With this in mind, Japanese policymakers should be proactive and anticipate a scenario where they could have enough leverage over a broken and isolated Russia to simultaneously rebuild its economy, resolve the territorial dispute and finally bring their decades-old conflict to a close.