On the morning of Nov. 1, Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian leader to set foot on one of the four islands off Hokkaido seized by the Soviets at the end of World War II that Japan has long wanted returned.

The Russian president’s visit triggered strong outrage not only against Moscow, but against the Democratic Party of Japan-led government and Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s “amateurish” diplomacy, critics said.

The spat over the islands has been festering for decades and has kept the two nations from forging a World War II peace treaty.

What territory is in dispute?

Japan is demanding the return of the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islet group off the northeast coast of the Nemuro Peninsula in Hokkaido. Their total landmass amounts to about 5,036 sq. km, or nearly the size of Chiba Prefecture.

The Foreign Ministry recognizes the islands as the Northern Territories, while Russia calls them the Southern Kurils. The isles are under the jurisdiction of the Sakhalin Oblast region, and fish abound in the seas around them.

When did Japan take control of the islands?

The islands had long been inhabited by the Ainu, who gave them place names, and also lived on Hokkaido and the southern part of Russia’s Sakhalin. By the early 19th century, the mainstream Japanese population had spread to Hokkaido and in short order the islands were placed under Tokyo’s control.

In 1855, Japan and Russia concluded the Treaty of Shimoda, which established the border between Etorofu, the northernmost of the four islands, and Uruppu, one of the Kuril Islands. But 50 years later, the Kurils and even the southern half of Sakhalin Island came under Japan’s control due to its victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.

That all changed on Aug. 9, 1945, when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. Even though Japan raised the white flag six days later, the Soviet onslaught continued, capturing all of the Kurils as well as the four islands.

The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty obliged Japan to give up its control over the Kuril Islands and its half of Sakhalin. The government’s position, however, is that the treaty did not include the four islands and thus the claim for their return remains unresolved.

“In terms of sovereignty claims, the two nations have clashed head-on over this issue,” said Shigeki Hakamada, a professor of Russian studies at Aoyama Gakuin University. “The sovereignty of a state affects the basic principle of a country’s existence, and it is difficult for either side to compromise.”

Are there any Japanese living on the islands?

No, according to the Foreign Ministry. The Soviets evicted all of the islanders by 1949 and an estimated 17,000 Russians now live on the isles.

As of Aug. 15, 1945, there were 17,291 Japanese living on the four islands. According to the government-affiliated League of Residents of Chishima and Habomai Islands, the most recent data showed that as of last March, there were only 7,536 former islanders left and their average age was 76.9 years.

What would happen to the Russian residents if the islands

were returned to Japan?

Nothing has been decided yet. But according to a Foreign Ministry official in the Russian Division, Japan would do its best to respect their human rights and possibly let them stay.

“We would thoroughly respect the human rights, interests and requests of the current Russian island residents,” said the official on condition of anonymity, adding that if they wished to stay, “we would need to take that into consideration.”

Can Japanese visit the islands?

Not freely. Because the islands are under Russian administrative control, Japanese visitors require a visa. In 1989, the government officially urged the public not to visit the four islands on a Russian visa until the territorial dispute is resolved to avoid the perception that Japanese recognize Russian sovereignty.

But there have been cases in which Japanese have visited the islands on Russian visas, most recently a group of tourists who went last summer. The travel agency that planned the tour later admitted knowing about the government’s 1989 decision.

Japan and Russia have agreed on a special nonvisa framework that allows former islanders, their relatives, activists engaged in the movement for the return of the isles and the media to make special visits organized by the government several times a year. The framework also allows former islanders and their kin to visit the graves of relatives and the sites of their former homes.

What measures have been pursued to resolve the issue?

In 1956, Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, the grandfather of Kan’s predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, signed the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which restored bilateral diplomatic ties. The declaration also stipulated that after the two countries concluded a peace treaty, Shikotan and the Habomai islets would be handed over to Japan.

But the two only amount to 7 percent of the total territory in dispute, Hakamada pointed out.

“It is not half or all, it is 7 percent or all,” he said. “The Japanese government’s official position is to get all four islands back. . . . But ultimately, a political decision may need to be made and the two governments may need to compromise in the end.”

In 1993, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Tokyo counterpart, Morihiro Hosokawa, signed the Tokyo Declaration, which clearly recognized that the two governments had territorial issues over the four islands.

But recent negotiations have failed to make any progress, especially after Japan angered Russia with contentious statements by key ministers. During a Diet committee meeting in May 2009, then Prime Minister Taro Aso said the Russians were “illegally occupying” the islands, a phrase echoed by current Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara while he was state minister in charge of affairs pertaining to Okinawa and the Russian-held islands.

Ever since becoming foreign minister last September, however, Maehara has stopped using the expression “illegal occupation.”

Then, in November, Medvedev made his historic trip to Kunashiri.

Why did Medvedev make the trip?

Hakamada noted that Russia has taken a “hardline attitude” amid perceived missteps by the DPJ-led government over important security and diplomatic issues, including the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base in Okinawa and the Senkaku Islands dispute with China.

“Russia believes Japan has become a do-nothing government over security and sovereignty issues and has begun to take advantage of the situation,” Hakamada said. “And Russia is clearly pushing to make it a fait accompli that the islands are its territory.”

The professor added that Medvedev’s liberal views are often viewed domestically as weak and he has been trying to create a strong image in the leadup to the 2012 Russian presidential election.

The change in Russia’s economy, which has soared in recent years thanks to oil revenues, is also a factor.

In 2006, the Russian government adopted a Kuril social and economic development program to boost the Russian islanders’ quality of life and improve infrastructure from 2007 to 2015.

“Before the development program, the islands were in reality ignored and there were actually residents who even said it may be better for the islands to be returned to Japan,” Hakamada said. “But after the development plan was adopted, the residents began to consider, once again, that Russia was their master and not Japan.”

How do other countries regard this issue?

The basic stance of the international community is that Japan and Russia need to resolve the dispute through bilateral consultations, according to the Foreign Ministry official.

Last November, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley made a statement backing Japan.

The official, however, added that the islands are not covered by the Japan-U.S. security alliance as they are currently not under Japan’s rule.

“The United States Government supports Japan and recognizes Japanese sovereignty over the Northern Territories,” Crowley said during a press briefing in November. “But . . . since it’s not currently under Japanese administration, (Article 5 of the security treaty) would not apply.”

How does this issue affect Japan-Russia ties?

The issue has prevented the crafting of a peace treaty for a war that ended more than 65 years ago.

Without a peace treaty, “Japan-Russia relations are not completely on normal terms,” the Foreign Ministry official said.

“In order for Japan and Russia to cooperate on a wide scale based on trust as partners of the Asia-Pacific region, we must conclude a peace treaty and set borders.”

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.