Northern Territories dispute lives on self-righteous deadlock

by Gregory Clark

Visits to Japan by Soviet and Russian leaders over the years have done little to break the Northern Territories deadlock — Moscow’s refusal of Tokyo’s demand for two large islands at the southern end of the Kuril Island chain occupied by Soviet troops in 1945, as a condition for a peace treaty with Moscow.

Is the visit this week by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin likely to change things?

The problem goes back to the San Francisco Peace Treaty between Japan and most of its World War II enemies signed in 1951. Article 2 (c) of the treaty states unequivocally that in addition to the southern half of Sakhalin, Japan also renounced all right, claim and title to something called the “Kurile Islands.”

At the time it was well known that the Japanese prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida, was unhappy about having to sign away the Kurils — especially the southern portion, which historically had long been under Japanese control. He had done so under strong U.S. pressure, with the chief U.S. delegate, John Foster Dulles, going no further than to admit that there could be some dispute over legal ownership of a small group of rocky islands called the Habomais at the very southern end of the Kurils and which together with another small island nearby, Shikotan, had traditionally been part of Hokkaido. It was taken for granted that the main southern Kuril islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri were included in the Kurils that Japan had to renounce.

But today, Tokyo insists that the “Kurile Islands” it renounced in 1951 never included these four southern Kuril islands or island groups, now called the Northern Territories. This, despite the fact that the media, Yoshida’s memoirs and published maps at the time all confirm the loss of this territory. Even more convincing is the fact that on Oct. 19, 1951, the then head of the Foreign Ministry’s Treaties Bureau, Kumao Nishimura, in response to a Diet question directed at Yoshida, admitted on the record that Etorofu and Kunashiri were included in the Kurils that Japan had renounced earlier that year.

On the face of things the case was closed and dismissed. But Tokyo today is so certain of its claim that it refuses not only a peace treaty with Moscow but also a range of business and other contacts with its northern neighbor, some of which would do much to revive the weak Hokkaido economy. As for the Nishimura statement, various Japanese authorities later claimed it was a “mistake,” or “made only for domestic purposes,” and, in any case, withdrawn 10 years later.

The confusion does not end there. In 1955 Tokyo began negotiations with Moscow for the return of the Habomais and Shikotan. As a conciliatory gesture, Moscow agreed, provided Japan dropped military alliances aimed at the USSR. But rather than accept this concession, Tokyo hardliners immediately upped the demand to include Etorofu and Kunashiri. Moscow was not impressed.

To break the deadlock Tokyo then sent Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu to Moscow to negotiate the long-delayed peace treaty. Shigemitsu came to realize the weakness of Japan’s four territories demand and backtracked to the original two territories demand (Shikotan and the Habomais), only to be told by Dulles, who in 1951 had forced Yoshida to renounce Japan’s claim to all the Kurils, including the southern Kurils, that the United States might not have to return Okinawa to Japan if Tokyo dropped its claim to Etorofu and Kunashiri. That, plus the nationalist reaction in Tokyo when news of the shift back to the two territories demand was leaked, forced Shigemitsu to backtrack once again. Moscow again refused the four territories demand. The only result was the 1956 Declaration in which Moscow renewed its promise to return the Habomais and Shikotan once a peace treaty was signed.

Tokyo has since consistently refused a peace treaty, claiming it has to have all four territories. Even compromise suggestions over the years that Japan should accept the two territories promised in 1956 in exchange for a promise to continue negotiations on the other two — Etorofu and Kunashiri — are rejected, mainly by the Foreign Ministry’s anti-Moscow hardliners.

The most recent effort at compromise came during the prime ministership of Yoshiro Mori (2000-2001). A small group keen to see better relations with Moscow came up with what they called the “two island plus alpha solution” (alpha was never clearly defined). This was an agreement for joint development of the other two territories, return of part of those territories (the so-called 3.5 solution — three territories plus half of the largest territory) and recognition of residual Japanese sovereignty. For a while there seemed a real chance of a positive response from the Russian side, with some help from the flexible, Japan-sympathetic Russian ambassador in Tokyo at the time, Alexander Panov.

But when Junichiro Koizumi replaced Mori in 2001, the Foreign Ministry and other hardliners struck back. The “Russian school” in the Foreign Ministry was purged. A Foreign Ministry Russian expert, Masaru Sato and the activist Hokkaido politician, Muneo Suzuki, were arrested on rather flimsy corruption charges. Their mentor in pushing the two island plus alpha solution, senior Foreign Ministry official Kazuhiko Togo, describes vividly in his recent book how he felt he had to go into semi-exile abroad to escape arrest (he has since returned to Japan, without arrest). At the time, as a member of the Koizumi-appointed Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka’s private advisory group, I too could feel strongly the sudden shift in attitudes, with the normally moderate Tanaka accepting unquestioningly the views of the hardliners.

The situation today seems little changed. Koizumi has since hinted that some compromise is possible, but the hardliners seem to remain entrenched. Any hint of any move that might in any way suggest that Japan accepts even remotely Moscow’s control over the disputed territory is rejected. One hardliner connected with the Foreign Ministry-supported Japan Forum on International Relations even managed to criticize Prime Minister Taro Aso’s recent visit to Sakhalin to welcome the first delivery of badly needed Sakhalin natural gas to Japan. He wrote that it damaged Japan’s territorial claims.

On the Russian side the current attitude seems to be one of total resignation. Putin has confirmed Moscow’s 1956 declaration, but some say that any further concession, including even the plus-alpha solution, would soon see Japanese nationalists demanding the return of all the Kurils and maybe even southern Sakhalin as well.

Only Japan’s Communist Party seems to realize the logical solution, which is to go back to San Francisco and Yoshida’s being forced by the U.S. to agree to renunciation. On this basis Japan should make a formal claim to all the Kurils. Sadly, the Foreign Ministry refuses to this day to release the documents that would back up this position, since this would undercut its dubious claim that Japan never renounced those Northern Territories. It would also have to blame Washington and not just Moscow for the loss of the territory.

Even less does Japan seem to be interested in the all-important question of why the notoriously anticommunist John Foster Dulles, at the height of the 1950-53 Korean War, wanted to force Japan to accept Soviet occupation of territory over at least part of which Japan had a reasonable historical claim?

Several explanations are possible. One is that the U.S. did not want to renege on its February 1945 Yalta promise to let Moscow have the Kurils in exchange for a Soviet promise to attack Japan in Manchuria. Such a reneging might have jeopardized Moscow’s Yalta promises elsewhere. There are even hints that, at Yalta, Moscow was also promised occupation of northern Hokkaido and was only deflected by a U.S. request to send occupation troops to the Kurils instead (Soviet troop carriers were only two days from Rumoi port in northern Hokkaido when the request was made).

Another says that Dulles was responding to pressure from a then virulently anti-Japan Canberra fearful that any ambiguity over territorial renunciations would provide an excuse for revived Japanese militarism.

A further and very convincing explanation comes from a U.S.-based Japanese researcher who has discovered that in exchange for a Soviet promise not to impose a U.N. Security Council veto of permission for the U.S. military use of Guam, the U.S. would guarantee its Yalta promise to have Japan renounce all the Kuril Islands.

If true, and there is every reason to believe it is, the U.S. in one blow managed (a) to gain the Guam bases it needed to maintain its military presence in the western Pacific, and (b) to guarantee more than half a century of Japanese hostility to Moscow and hence continued permission for bases in Japan. Even Machiavelli would have been proud of that deal.

The prolonged affair provides two insights into Japan’s rather unusual negotiation style. One, noted also by Togo in his book, is Japan’s propensity in negotiations to use any concession by the other side as the basis for further demands, as we saw in 1955.

We have seen the same thing in the North Korean abductee negotiations, with Tokyo using North Korea’s surprising 2002 concession to return abductees on conditions as the basis for ignoring those conditions and making demands for more abductees.

The other insight, also seen in other territorial disputes and in the North Korean abductee question, is the seeming belief that in any deadlocked dispute the mere fact of deadlock proves Japan’s position is correct and that gritty determination and pressure will somehow force the other side to realize the error of its ways.

Continued negotiation to remove the deadlock is refused, seemingly on the basis that any negotiation, per se, admits there might be some flaw in the Japanese position. It is a strange way to run a foreign policy.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat with Soviet experience, and a longtime resident correspondent and academic in Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net where further details and sources for this article are provided.