The coming visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin is already following a familiar pattern. Well before the Russian (or Soviet) leader arrives we are told how Tokyo will resolutely press its claim for the return of the so-called Northern Territories — islands at the southern end of the Kuril chain seized by Soviet troops in 1945. Often there is an assumption that Moscow will agree because it is supposed to be desperate for money, development, friends or something.
Sometimes we are told that even the mere fact of the visit proves Moscow wants to make a concession — that the visit is a “love call” as one excited commentator once put it. Each time the wording of the final communique is tooth-combed to find some proof of a concession. But each time the message from Moscow is “nyet.”
This time it is supposed to be different. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believes he has a good personal relationship with Putin. This year is the 60th anniversary of the 1956 breakthrough in Tokyo-Moscow relations, when Russia promised to return the smaller two of the disputed islands — Shikotan and the Habomais — once a peace treaty to end the hostilities of World War II was signed.
True, both sides remain at loggerheads over Tokyo’s demand that Moscow must also promise to return the two much larger islands — Etorofu and Kunashiri. But Abe has seemed confident that generous offers of economic aid and investment would allow him to find some way around this problem.
Only now is it becoming clear that while Moscow is very happy to take Abe’s economic concessions, it will continue to refuse territorial concessions. In the wake of the Crimea takeover, Moscow is even more sensitive to concessions involving sovereignty than before. Its recent move to bolster Kurils defenses was matched by similar moves to protect the threatened Russian outpost of Kaliningrad surrounded by Polish and Lithuanian territory. Even the promised return of Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets could be in doubt since the Kremlin asserts that promise originally was conditional on Japan not being party to any alliance aimed against Moscow.
Tokyo has handled this dispute badly. The disputed islands belong to the Kuril archipelago, which Japan did much to develop and inhabit before 1945. Unlike other Kuril islands, they were never part of Russia. The World War II Allies promised that a defeated Japan should only lose territories it had gained from others by violence. Tokyo’s claim to the islands would seem to have a strong basis.
True, in its 1951 San Francisco peace treaty with the United States and other Allied powers Japan renounced “all right, claim and title to the Kuril islands.” But it did so only under severe pressure from some of those powers — a bitterly anti-Japan Australia to begin with, and a U.S. in particular secretly seeking Moscow’s cooperation in the U.N. Security Council over its Micronesia trusteeship. Today Tokyo would seem entitled to ask for the mistake to be rectified.
But it cannot do this. For in trying to negotiate the return of Etorofu and Kunashiri it embarked on a foolish effort to insist they were not part of the Kurils that it had renounced at San Francisco; that they were part of a separate entity which it dubbed the “Northern Territories.”
Yet maps have always shown these islands as part of the Kurils. Immediately after the San Francisco treaty signing, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Treaties Bureau, Kumao Nishimura, when asked in a Diet committee if Etorofu and Kunashiri were included in the Kuril Islands over which Japan had renounced sovereign right, said both the northern and southern Kurils were included (the Foreign Ministry has since said this was a mistake).
In his memoirs written years later, the prime minister at the time, Shigeru Yoshida, admits how reluctant he was to have signed away the southern Kurils (Minami Chishima in Japanese).
To try to maintain the fiction that the Northern Territories are somehow separate from the Kurils, the Foreign Ministry has dug up an 1875 treaty with Czarist Russia in which all the territories north of Etorofu are called “the Kurils.” So were all the territories to the south called “Northern Territories?” Of course not. They were always “Minami Chishima,” with the exception of Shikotan and the Habomais, which were administered as part of Hokkaido (the Russians call them the Lesser Kurils).
In a bid to wriggle out of this contradiction, the ministry insists that in any case Japan has a claim since Moscow did not sign the San Francisco treaty, and that the treaty did not say to whom the Kurils were to be given. But by any standard the San Francisco treaty was an international treaty with internationally binding provisions. Besides, Moscow now says it accepts the San Francisco treaty (it had previously based its claim solely on the Yalta treaty of February 1945 in which the U.S. and United Kingdom agreed Moscow could take over the Kurils if it promised to enter the war with Japan).
Meanwhile the conservative Japanese position has hardened to the point where those suggesting compromise solutions — for example the small group including former Liberal Democratic Party politician Muneo Suzuki and former senior Russian specialist diplomat Kazuhiko Togo, which in 2001 suggested a Shikotan-Habomais return plus continued negotiations on the other two islands — find themselves condemned as traitors and risk jail on flimsy charges.
Ironically it is only the communist left and the extreme right wing in Japan that have a logical position. They both say Japan should stop fussing over the “Northern Territories” and claim all the Kurils.
If from the beginning Tokyo had based its claim on the abundant evidence it was forced against its will to renounce its claim to all or part of the Kurils, it would be in a much stronger legal position. For in addition to the Yoshida memoirs, Tokyo used to talk about the 32 documents it sent to Washington to protest the San Francisco renunciation clause (it cannot do this now because officially it claims there was no renunciation anyway).
And we know that the U.S. has long played a Machiavellian role in all this — before 1951 by insisting that Japan renounce all the disputed islands (with the possible exception of the Habomais) and then after 1951 going out of its way to insist that Japan has full right to claim all those islands; at one stage it seems even to have threatened that any compromise might prevent it from returning Okinawa to Japan.
In so doing it has created an impasse in Moscow-Tokyo relations that has already served its interests for more than half a century and could continue well into the future. But that is what Tokyo has to expect when it allows its foreign policy to be dictated by the interests of the U.S. rather than its own.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat long resident in Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net .
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