Japan Describes The Kuril Islands Under Russia’s Illegal Occupation
Old tensions are building anew in the Pacific region as on April 22, Japan’s latest Diplomatic Bluebook 2022 described the Kuril Islands (which Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia as the South Kurils) as being under Russia’s “illegal occupation”. This is the first time in about two decades that Japan has used this phrase to describe the dispute over the Kuril Islands. Japan had been using softer language since 2003, saying that the dispute over the islands was the greatest concern in Russia-Japan bilateral ties. The four islands – Etorofu/Iturup; Kunashiri/Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai – used to be under the control of the Japanese government until the Soviet Union occupied them at the end of World War II.
Japan’s latest Diplomatic Bluebook, an annual diplomatic report published by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), was reported to a cabinet meeting of the Kishida administration. Based on the contents, four points are worth emphasizing with regards to Japan-Russia relations after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine War. First, the report officially criticized Russia’s military operations against Ukraine, stating that “Russia’s ongoing military invasion of Ukraine has brutally undermined the foundation of an international order built over the past 100 years.” Second, the report describes the Northern Islands as Japan’s “inherent territory” for the first time in 11 years. Third, the report mentioned for the first time in 19 years that the Northern Territories have “illegally been occupied” by Russia. Fourth, the report argues that Japan is currently in no position to resume diplomatic negotiations toward a Japan-Russia peace treaty under. This year’s Diplomatic Bluebook was thoroughly revised after the outbreak of the war, and it shows that Japan has readopted a “hardline stance” on the territorial dispute with Russia.
Instead, the report places great emphasis on the relationship between Japan and the US, saying the alliance is stronger than at any time in history. It mentioned that the two sides have held eight summits and 15 foreign ministerial meetings since US President Joe Biden took office in 2021 until February 2022. The bluebook basically maintained the view on China from the 2021 edition, expressing Japan's concerns on China's "unilateral attempt to change the status quo" in waters near China's Diaoyu Islands. However, it also called on efforts to build constructive and stable relations. Analysts said Japan's 2022 diplomatic bluebook reflects Tokyo's judgment on the overall geopolitical situation in the world: intensified competition, narrowing space for cooperation and communication, picking a side, and ideological camp.
According to Tokyo, Japan’s sovereignty over the islands is confirmed by several treaties like the Shimoda Treaty of 1855, the 1875 Treaty for the exchange of Sakhalin for the Kuril Islands (Treaty of St. Petersburg), and the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905 signed after the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 which Japan had won. Russia, on the other hand, claims the Yalta Agreement (1945) and the Potsdam Declaration (1945) as proof of its sovereignty and argues that the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 is legal evidence that Japan had acknowledged Russian sovereignty over the islands. Under Article 2 of the treaty, Japan had “renounced all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands.”
However, Japan argues that the San Francisco Treaty cannot be used here as the Soviet Union never signed the peace treaty. Japan also refuses to concede that the four disputed islands were in fact part of the Kuril chain. In fact, Japan and Russia are technically still at war because they have not signed a peace treaty after World War II. In 1956, during Japanese Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama’s visit to the Soviet Union, it was suggested that two of the four islands would be returned to Japan once a peace treaty was signed. However, persisting differences prevented the signing of a peace treaty though the two countries signed the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which restored diplomatic relations between the two nations. The Soviet Union later hardened its position, even refusing to recognise that a territorial dispute existed with Japan. It was only in 1991 during Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Japan that the USSR recognised that the islands were the subject of a territorial dispute.
Moscow and Tokyo have previously held several rounds of talks on the disputed territory, although no breakthrough has been made. After Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine, Moscow-Tokyo relations have gone from bad to worse as Japan has followed the United States and European Union in imposing sanctions on Russia. There are concerns in Russia that the US plans to eventually establish naval bases on the Kuril Islands, which is allegedly why Washington is pushing Tokyo to reassert its sovereignty over the disputed territory. It is unlikely that these islands will draw these two countries into any kind of conflict beyond the sanctions that Japan has placed upon Russian banks. But these are dangerous times, and it is impossible to guess exactly what comes next. Any accidental clash between Japan and Russia would trigger Article V of the 1960 treaty that Japan signed with the United States; if that were to happen, it would be a catastrophe. Territorial disputes, conflicts of interest, and irresponsible plans to dump contaminated nuclear water have caused resentment among Japan's neighbors. It is more important for Japan to manage its relations with its neighbors than to rely on America.