For over 40 years now, the ritual has been the same. Each new Japanese administration resolves firmly that it will solve Japan’s festering territorial dispute with Moscow, once and for all. Delegations and prime ministers visit Moscow. And each time the results are zero.

The present administration of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi is no exception. It inherited an alleged promise by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to solve the dispute by the year 2000. Now, it seems, Japan has yet another year 2,000 problem: Yeltsin’s promise was meaningless, if it ever even existed. So there will be no solution to the so-called Northern Territories problem and therefore no formal peace treaty to end a long-ago war with the Soviet Union.

Some background is needed to understand how Tokyo got into this mess. At the January 1945 Yalta Conference, and in exchange for a Soviet pledge to attack Japan, the United States promised Moscow that it could take control of former Russian territories lost to Japan. These included the Kuril Island archipelago, whose southern end (which Japan today calls the Northern Territories) consists of three large islands — Etorufu, Kunashiri and Shikotan — plus a group of small islands very close to Hokkaido known as the Habomais.

In August-September 1945, the Soviets, with U.S. approval, occupied all the Kurils, and in 1946 the U.S. Occupation authorities told the Japanese government that the entire Kuril chain, right through to the Habomais, were excluded from the territory of Japan.

In 1951, Japan set out to negotiate a peace agreement with the U.S. and its World War II allies. Moscow participated for a while, but then withdrew in umbrage over aspects of U.S. Cold War policy. Even so, the final San Francisco Peace Treaty states quite unambiguously that Japan will renounce “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands.”

At the time, the Japanese negotiator, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, stated publicly that Japan was unhappy with this renunciation, particularly as it applied to the southern portion. Administratively, Japan had always seen the Habomais and Shikotan as part of Hokkaido rather than the Kurils. Historically, Etorufu and Kunashiri had also been separate from the other Kuril islands whose control by Russia had been accepted by Japan back in 1855.

But Yoshida signed the peace treaty anyway. All he could gain from the U.S., as represented by that staunchly anticommunist secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was a statement that if Japan felt so strongly about its claim to the Habomais it could appeal to the International Court of Justice. About Japan’s claim to other islands, there was a loud silence.

In 1955, Japan began to seek a separate peace treaty with Moscow. It realized that its position regarding the Kurils was weak. But it hoped that just possibly it could get some concession over the Habomais and Shikotan, and got the U.S., France and Britain to declare that these islands were not included in the Kurils Japan had renounced in 1951.

To Tokyo’s surprise, the Soviets agreed to the request: They were keen to wean Tokyo from its pro-U.S. alignment. But Foreign Ministry conservatives, anxious to head off any Japanese-Soviet rapprochement, moved immediately, with U.S. backing, to include Etorufu and Kunashiri in Japan’s territorial request list. Moscow said no, and the conservatives’ fears were allayed.

In 1956, however, Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama decided to try to break the deadlock, sending his conservative foreign minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, to Moscow with full plenipotentiary powers to negotiate a peace treaty.

Shigemitsu began with Japan’s now standard demand for Etorufu and Kunashiri, which Moscow promptly rejected. But the Soviets repeated their offer to return Shikotan and the Habomais in exchange for a peace treaty, which Shigemitsu decided to accept. But when news of the possible deal leaked out, Tokyo’s anticommunist conservatives swung into action again.

Shigemitsu was summoned home and on the way was intercepted by the same John Foster Dulles who just five years earlier at San Francisco had forced Japan to renounce the Kuril Islands, including most of the Northern Territories. Dulles warned that if Japan did not maintain its full demand for all the Northern Territories, the U.S. would see no need to return Okinawa to Japan. Tokyo broke off the talks with Moscow.

Scholars have debated how Dulles could have made such a complete volte-face. One theory is that in 1951 the U.S. knew that if it did not abide by the Yalta agreement over the Kurils, it could not get Moscow to abide by Yalta agreements over Germany and Austria — a problem that had largely disappeared by 1956. Another very interesting theory put forward by Professor Kimitada Miwa of Sophia University says the U.S.’ 1951 position was a tradeoff for the Soviets agreeing in the U.N. Security Council to the U.S. gaining control over Micronesia earlier in 1947.

Finally, there is the theory that it was all a devious Dulles plot. He deliberately forced Japan to renounce the Kurils in 1951, and, knowing Japan would later try vainly to get the islands back, included a treaty clause allowing the U.S. to claim any benefits Japan might give later to a third party. In short, if the Soviets were allowed to retain control of territory claimed by Japan, then the U.S. was equally entitled to do the same in Okinawa.

The Japanese position today ignores all these subtleties. It says simply that the Northern Territories are traditional Japanese territory (“koyu no ryodo”) and therefore must be returned. As for the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Tokyo advances two highly contradictory arguments. One is that since the treaty did not specify who was to receive those renounced “Kuril Islands,” Japan can claim some or all of those territories as its own. The other says that the “Kuril Islands” that Japan renounced at San Francisco could not have included the Northern Territories anyway, since they were traditional Japanese territories to begin with.

There is one small problem with the latter argument. If Japan did not renounce the Northern Territories in 1951, why was Yoshida telling the world in 1951 that he was upset over the loss of the Northern Territories? On his return from San Francisco, he was questioned in the Diet over whether the term “Kuril Islands” as used in the Peace Treaty included Etorufu and Kunashiri. Answering on his behalf, the head of the Treaties Bureau in the Japanese Foreign Ministry stated on Oct. 19, 1951 that unfortunately, yes, they were included.

Questioned on this crucial point, Foreign Ministry officials have, over the years, responded only that the Treaties Bureau statement (a) was mistaken, (b) is now out of date, or (c) was “kokunai muki,” or domestically oriented (i.e. that under Japan’s insider/outsider value system foreigners such as myself should not be poking their noses into such matters).

The officials also like to point to vigorous support for Japan’s position from the U.S., which in 1956 began stating formally that yes, Etorufu and Kunashiri were indeed definitely excluded from the territories Japan had renounced at San Francisco. The suggestion that the U.S., which was saying the exact opposite in 1951, might have been indulging in a piece of Cold War opportunism aimed at keeping Moscow and Tokyo at loggerheads is politely ignored.

Nor is it only the U.S. that likes to play Machiavelli. In 1951, Britain played a major role in getting Japan to renounce the Kurils, and its embassy in Tokyo is on record as reporting that Tokyo’s sudden demand in 1955 for Etorufu and Kunashiri was both “curious and naive.” Today, Britain supports the same demand as totally reasonable. Australia, which in 1951 had gone out of its way to prevent Dulles from making any concession to Yoshida on territorial matters (fearing that postwar Japan would use any territorial ambiguity as an excuse for remilitarization) today also supports Japan’s position.

In short, what began as a postwar exercise to punish Japan for its wartime aggression gradually metamorphosed into a highly successful Cold War exercise to keep Japan firmly in the Western camp.

This is not to dismiss the Japanese position entirely. If Tokyo referred back to Yoshida’s reluctance in San Francisco to renounce the Kurils, the southern portion especially, and released still-secret documents showing that the U.S. forced it to back down, it would have a good legal basis for seeking to renegotiate that portion of the peace treaty.

But today it is too caught up in its claim of never having renounced the Northern Territories to want to reveal the truth of what actually happened in 1951. It finds it easier to blame everything on the former Soviet Union rather than the U.S. It persists vainly in its demand that Moscow return these “traditional” territories, little realizing that in the face of such a demand Moscow could never agree even if it wanted to, for fear of creating a precedent that would allow other neighboring nations to claim former “traditional territory.”

Tokyo’s proposal that Moscow can hold on to the territories for some years provided it recognizes Japan’s sovereignty reveals an even more inadequate understanding of both international diplomacy and the Russian mentality.

Meanwhile, most Japanese, even progressives, have now forgotten what happened back in the 1950s and are convinced that Japan’s position is completely valid. Tokyo is urged to continue to negotiate strenuously and persistently and to ignore Moscow’s frequent hints that it is still prepared to return Shikotan and the Habomais. The dispute is bound to continue indefinitely. John Foster Dulles must be rejoicing in his grave.

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