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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #84: September 10, 2004

Japan's Territorial Disputes: Part Three - Northern Territories-Southern Kuriles Dispute: Overview and Timeline

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

Origins of the dispute
The three large islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets are collectively known as the Northern Territories in Japan. The islands were held by Japan until August 1945, when the Soviet army dramatically swept in to seize them along with the Japanese territory known as Karafuto which was located on Southern Sakhalin.

Moscow completed its occupation by early September 1945 and the islands have been in Russian hands ever since. Tokyo says Russia's occupation was opportunistic as the Kremlin only entered the war against Japan in its final dying days, breaking a bilateral non-aggression pact signed in 1941.

About 17,000 Japanese were living on the islands at the time of the Red Army invasion, forcing the inhabitants to flee. Today, it is estimated that about 14,000 Russians eke out a harsh existence on the wind-swept and economically underdeveloped islands. Most of the inhabitants are dependant on the fishing industry.

Tokyo says that historically the islands are Japanese as they were inhabited by its indigenous Ainu people for many centuries.

Moscow highlights early Russian exploration of the region dating back to 1697 as proof of its claim.

Both nations signed a bilateral trade and friendship agreement in February 1855, under which Moscow officially recognized the islands as Japanese territories.

In 1875, another bilateral treaty was concluded in which it was stated that the Kuril archipelago was Japanese territory.

In 1941 Japan and the Soviet Union concluded a non-aggression pact.

On 9 August 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.

On 18 August 1945, the Red Army commenced an invasion of the Northern Territories and had completed its occupation by 3 September 1945. (See map)

By the close of 1948, all the original Japanese inhabitants had been removed from the Russian-held island-territories.

In 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union inked a joint declaration which stipulates that the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan Island would be returned to Japan upon the conclusion of a peace treaty. The status of Kunashiri and Etorofu was not mentioned and it is these two islands that form the real focus of the territorial dispute.

In 1956, the United States issued a statement supporting Japan's claim over the entire Northern Territories.

During the postwar period, Japan never renounced its claim to the windy island-territories and the ownership issue prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding any peace treaty to formally end hostilities, a situation which technically still leaves them at war. During this period, there were frequent clashes between Japanese fishing vessels and Soviet naval patrols.

In 1981, Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki observes the islands from the air, becoming the first Japanese premier to see them.

The dispute stopped Moscow and Tokyo from developing any meaningful economic or political links until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

During former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's visit to Japan in October 1993, an agreement was signed with Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa which pledged both sides to seeking a resolution of the dispute.

In November 1997, during the Krasnoyarsk summit in Russia, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Yeltsin inked an agreement under which both countries pledged to work towards signing a peace treaty by the end of 2000, but this objective was not realized. Hashimoto put forward an idea under which Russia would acknowledge Japan's sovereignty over all the islands, but they would remain under Moscow's control for about 10 to 20 years.

In 2001, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori initiated discussions about returning the Habomai islets and Shikotan Island to Japan in parallel with separate talks on the issue of Kunashiri and Etorofu sovereignty.

Russia has expressed little interest in either the Hashimoto or Mori initiatives.

In 2001, Mori flies over the islands in an aircraft, becoming the second Japanese premier to observe them.

In August 2003, improving political ties eases tension and leads the two countries to conduct their first joint naval exercise. Economic bonds also begin to rapidly grow.

2 September 2004, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi becomes the first Japanese premier to view the territory from the sea. Koizumi came close to Kaigara Island, a reef in the Habomai islets group about 3.7 kilometers from Cape Nosappu. He also traveled close to the median line with Kunashiri Island. Both islands can be clearly seen from the mainland of Hokkaido. This led some people in Hokkaido to question whether it was necessary to use a coast guard vessel to view them.

Russia position on the islands
Judging from bilateral negotiations over the past decade, the Kremlin is only willing to agree to the return of the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan island as agreed in the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration.

Value of the territory
Within Japan there is debate about the real value of the territory. Some claim the sparsely inhabited archipelago is located in an area rich in natural resources, while others assess the wind-swept chain as possessing limited economic or strategic value. What is not in dispute is that the question of sovereignty fires the passions of nationalists in both nations and has blocked a long overdue resolution of the decades-long dispute.

For a detailed discussion of the issues outlined in this article, see Northern Territories Dispute still Divides Japan and Russia

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

Related links

Japan's Northern Territories
[Official Japanese government view of the issue]

South Kuriles/Northern Territories:
A Stumbling-block in Russia-Japan Relations (May 2001)
Andrew Andersen, Department of Political Science, University of Victoria
[This site also has a good set of Northern territory related links]

History of the Northern Territories
[Hokkaido prefectural government view]

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