The islands at the heart of Japan-Russia dispute


Known as the Northern Territories by Japan and the Southern Kurils by Russia, the string of desolate volcanic islands off Hokkaido are at the heart of a feud between the two countries dating back to World War II.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin begins talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the territorial dispute that has prevented the sides from signing a formal treaty to end the war, here are some key facts on the islands:

Torn history

Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1786 claimed sovereignty over the islands after her government declared Russian explorers discovered them.

In the first treaty between Russia and Japan in 1855 the frontier between the two countries was drawn just north of the four islands closest to Japan.

Twenty years later in 1875, a new treaty handed Tokyo the entire chain, in exchange for Russia gaining full control of the island of Sakhalin. Japan also seized back control of the southern half of Sakhalin after its crushing defeat of Moscow in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.

Soviet takeover

The islands have been back at the center of a dispute between Moscow and Tokyo since Soviet troops invaded them in the final days of World War II.

The USSR only entered into war with Japan on Aug. 9, 1945 just after the United States had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The troops completed the takeover of the islands after Japan’s surrender later that month.

Russia argues that U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt promised Stalin he could take back the islands in exchange for joining the war on Japan at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, where the Allied leaders divided up the postwar world.

The Soviet capture of the islands has since prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing a formal peace treaty to end the war, despite repeated attempts over the past 70 years to reach a deal.

In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev first offered to give Japan the two smallest islands, Shikotan and Habomai, in exchange for signing a peace treaty, but the talks went nowhere in face of U.S. opposition.

Strategic value

The islands’ current population is less than 17,000 people, but the territory is “important from all points of view,” said Valery Kistanov, who heads the Center for Japanese Studies at the Russian Institute of the Far East.

“They are rich in hot springs and minerals and rare metals such as rhenium,” which is used in the production of supersonic aircraft, he said.

But the “greatest value” of the islands lies in their geographical location at the meeting of warm and cool water currents, which is beneficial both for fisheries and the Russian Navy, too, he said.

Strategically, control of the islands ensures Russia has year-round access to the Pacific Ocean for its Pacific Fleet of warships and submarines based in Vladivostok since the strait between Kunashiri and Etorofu does not freeze over in winter.

“This is why the Russian military is against any territorial concession, especially of Iturup and Kunashir,” said expert James Brown who teaches at Temple University in Japan.

The idea of Russia and Japan jointly using the islands has been floated in recent years, but observers remain skeptical that this is realistic.

Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, dismissing the idea as “fanciful,” said that there would be too many thorny legal issues to untangle.

“One could use these islands jointly, but under which jurisdiction?” he said.