World War Territory: Can Russia and Japan Finally Achieve Peace After Decades-Long Land Dispute
Russia and Japan have been engaged in a decades-long dispute over the four islands located in the Kuril territory. It is a conflict that dates back to World War II when Soviet Forces seized the islands in 1945 in which 17,000 Japanese residents were expelled and by 1949 it had deported all residents to Japan.
Today it seems that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is still hoping to Russia return the Islands, which seems to have been fulfilled by Putin in a recent meeting between the two leaders in January at a summit in Moscow.
History of Soviet Control of Northern Territories in Japan
Prior to Soviet control over the Kuril Islands; Russian military forces in the city of Nemuro in Hokkaido already occupied Japan and in late November 1941, a Japanese fleet comprised of six aircraft carriers launched from Etorofu Island’s Hitokappu Bay to attack Pearl Harbor.
More than three-quarters of a century later, the bay is still occupied by Russian troops since the siege of Etorofu and Kuril Islands north of Hokkaido at the end of World War II.
It is an issue that has plagued Russian-Japanese relations and affairs with no easy solution given that both countries did not officially sign a peace treaty following the end of World War II. The last treaty signed by both Russia and Japan was the Treaty of Shimoda of 1855, which gave Japan ownership of the four southern islands and Russia ownership of everything to the north.
Negotiating the Treaty
Fast-forward to the 21st Century, and this issue has seen Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe meet 25 times to negotiate on how to resolve the dispute without reaching a mutual agreement. And with Japanese PM persisting on the joint economic development of the Northern territories back in 2017, Russia is facing increasingly more pressure to reach a conclusion.
Abe’s demands are in reference to Russia’s 17bn-rouble (£486m) plan to develop new energy and transport infrastructures on the entire Kuril island chain back in August 2006.
Last November, the energy and economy ministers of both nations agreed to progress on decommissioning Japan’s nuclear plant in Fukushima and the joint development of oil and gas fields in the Russian Far East.
Now in an attempt to further strengthen Japanese-Russian relations amid US and European Union sanctions over the Ukrainian conflict, Vladimir Putin has offered to undo Russia’s 74-year sovereignty over the Kuril Islands in a historic peace treaty at the ASEAN-Russia Summit in Moscow with both leaders in attendance:
“We have been trying to solve the territorial dispute for 70 years. We’ve been holding talks for 70 years,” Putin Said at the Eastern Economic Forum held in the Russian city of Vladivostok in September 2018.
“It seems to me that this would facilitate the solution of all problems which we have not been able to solve during the past 70 years.” The Japanese prime minister said the two countries “have a duty to future generations.”
“Let us walk together mindful of the questions, ‘If we don’t do it now, then when?’ And ‘if we don’t do it, then who will?’” Abe said, speaking before Putin.
However, both Putin and Abe realise that this is a delicate process that will require a step-by-step approach: “We are both fully aware that it will not be easy.”
This “step-by-step” approach has started with Russia agreeing to return just 7 per cent of the disputed land seeing that the territory has amassed a population of 30,000 Russians.
But with Russia still seeking investment from Japan, the proposed peace treaty – that is to be based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration –would ultimately reflect the interests of both nations with both Putin and Abe’s current focus shifting towards the denuclearization of Korea.