An Unlikely Solution to Russia and Japan's Island Stalemate

Island in the Kuril Archipelago. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The Kuril Islands dispute is older than World War II.

The dispute over the southernmost Kuril Islands—Etorofu/Iturup, Kunashiri/Kunashir, Shikotan and the Habomai Islands—have been a point of tension between Japan and Russia since their seizure by the Soviet Union in 1945. More than seventy years on, Russo-Japanese relations are still abnormal because of the enduring territorial dispute. Historical factors have largely prevented the issue from being settled. These include demography, mentalities, institutions, geography and economy, all of which incentivize hard-line policy positions over compromise. The first four factors promote continued deadlock, while economics in the form of petropolitics holds some hope for a solution.

Russian claims to the Kurils go back to the mid-seventeenth century, through periodic contact with Japan via Hokkaido. In 1821, a de facto boundary was established, with Etorofu being Japanese territory and Russian land beginning at Urup Island. Subsequently, the Treaties of Shimoda (1855) and St. Petersburg (1875) were peacefully agreed upon, with the four currently disputed islands being part of Japan. The final time the Kurils changed hands was at the conclusion of World War II, with the Allied powers effectively agreeing to give the islands to Russia at Yalta in 1945. The dispute became part of Cold War politics during the San Francisco Treaty negotiations, with Article 2c forcing Japan to give up its claims to the entire Kuril chain. However, the Soviet Union’s refusal to sign the agreement left the islands in limbo. In 1956, there was a Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration that ended the de facto state of war, but failed to resolve the territorial question. Following the ratification of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, further negotiations ceased until the 1990s.

However, with the end of the Cold War in 1991, there seemed to be a new opportunity for settling the issue. Despite the massive upheaval in world affairs, Japan and Russia’s positions on the Kurils have remained relatively unchanged since 1956, because of the five historical factors that transcend the end of the Cold War.

The first factor is demographics. Japan has already seen its population shrink because of low birth rates and aging, while Russia’s population has been declining since 1992 because of alcohol abuse and other social ills. This shift, combined with a decrease in perceived power internationally, has led to backward-looking tendencies, with both nations largely trying to solve the issue by looking to the past and not the future. With this kind of mind-set, it can be argued that Japan and Russia’s aging population restrain Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President Vladimir Putin’s ability to negotiate because of entrenched views about the Kuril issue.

This also plays into mentality and perceptions of the outside world, which are shaped by how history is taught, the media, and public opinion more broadly. For Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a huge psychological blow, with a loss of status and power as many former Soviet Republics broke away. This dramatically changed Russia’s borders and created great uncertainty about the nation’s future. It is well known that during times of crisis that citizens will often express stronger feelings of patriotism or defensive nationalism. The Kuril dispute fills some of the void left behind in Russia, and serves a way to push back against perceived historical injustices committed by Japan.

Russian perceptions of Japan were largely shaped based on the Kuril issue well into the Cold War. Anti-Japanese propaganda had been common since the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War, and was reinforced by Japan’s intervention in the Russian Civil War (1918–22). This led many Russians to believe that their prior treaty obligations were nullified as a result. However, Russia’s victory over Japan in World War II cleansed the prior humiliation and cemented the symbolic value of the Kurils, representing (1) the irreversibility of the results of World War II and (2) Russia’s status as a great power. From this viewpoint, giving up territory is tantamount to calling into question the outcome of the war. Thus, possession of the Kurils retains strong psychological importance to Russians.