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Russia – Japan: Moving Beyond Kurile Conflict – Analysis


The ongoing tragedy at Japan’s Fukushima Daichi nuclear power complex should provide an impetus for Russia and Japan to finally settle their territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands.


By John CK Daly or ISN Insights

Russia has the knowledge and experience from the Chernobyl disaster to provide valuable assistance to Japan as it battles fallout from the Fukushima nuclear accident. Moscow-Tokyo collaboration on this front could also open new avenues for a diplomatic solution to the vexed territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands, which has poisoned relations between Russia and Japan to the point that no peace treaty was ever concluded between the two countries after World War II.

Immediately following the Japan earthquake and tsunami, Russia’s Emergency Ministry dispatched a 161-strong search and rescue team, but its offers of assistance have been dampened by suspicions and reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem. On 15 March, the chief of Russia’s Rosatom Nuclear Energy State Corporation, Sergei Kiriyenko, complained that a delegation – including two world-class nuclear scientists who participated in the cleanup efforts at Chernobyl and the first deputy general director of the Rosenergoatom company, who heads Rosatom’s delegation to Japan – was stranded in Khabarovsk because Tokyo refused to give permission for its airplane to enter Japanese airspace. The head of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu had to appeal to Japan’s Ambassador to Russia just to get the aircraft into the country the next day.

Kuril Islands
Kuril Islands

Nevertheless, five days later, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, “We are also ready to send to Japan brigades of experts with experience in collecting and analyzing information on the radiation situation, and environmental and medical data. They could help out with drawing up recommendations on the priority areas and protection measures for protecting personnel and local people against radiation, and if necessary, on medical assistance.”

Kuril Islands – Long and winding history of dispute


The tensions manifested between Tokyo and Moscow over the current nuclear crisis reflect deeper disputes – including over the Kurile Islands. Japan refers to the four southern islands of the 1,300-kilometer-long, 56-island archipelago, stretching from Hokkaido to the Kamchatka peninsula, as its “Northern Territories”. Since 1945, Japan has demanded the return from Russia of Iturup (“Etorofu” in Japanese), Kunashir (“Kunashiri” in Japanese), Shikotan and the Habomai Islets. While both countries claim portions of the island chain, both are relative newcomers there, having begun to investigate the isolated northwestern Pacific archipelago about 400 years ago.

Tsar Peter the Great was sufficiently intrigued by reports from the region, that in 1719 he dispatched geographer Ivan Yevreinov to map Kamchatka and 16 of the Kurile Islands. After making stops to collect tribute from the natives, Yevreinov eventually sailed as far south as Hokkaido. In 1722, he presented his cartography of Kamchatka and the Kuriles to the tsar.

Russian exploration of the northwestern Pacific continued, and in February 1855, Russia and Japan signed the Shimoda Treaty, establishing a boundary between Iturup and Urup, whereby all islands north of Urup belonged to Russia, while Japan retained Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and the Habomais. Twenty years later, following the 1875 Russian-Japanese Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands, Japan handed over Sakhalin to Russia, and in return Russia ceded the 18 Kuriles from Urup to Shimushu.

Japan regards the Kuriles as “inviolable” sovereign territory; it began to assert its presence there about four centuries ago, displacing the original, non-Japanese Ainu inhabitants, who in 1899 the Japanese government legislatively labeled as “former aborigines” to be assimilated.

Fallout from World War II

Territorial issues flared after the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War, when Russian forces fared badly against a newly industrialized Japan, and Tokyo secured territorial concessions on Sakhalin. Russia’s deep humiliation was avenged 40 years later. Although the USSR and Japan had signed a neutrality pact in April 1941, on 8 August 1945 the USSR declared war against the remaining Axis power, advancing against Japan’s Kwangtung army in Manchuria and capturing the Kuriles in a series of whirlwind amphibious campaigns against 100,000 Japanese troops. After Japan’s surrender, the USSR took possession of the Kuriles and expelled 17,000 Japanese.

In 1951, Japan and the Allied powers signed a peace treaty in San Francisco, to which the USSR was not a party. Japan renounced all rights to the Kuriles, but maintained that the “Kurile Islands” it was renouncing did not include Etorofu, Kunashir, Shikotan or the Habomais, which Tokyo insists had always been Japanese.

During the Cold War, the Kuriles became a strategic asset for the USSR, barring entry to the Soviet naval base in the Sea of Okhotsk that was home to submarines carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Japan insists the “Northern Territories” remain under occupation. Since 1945, the situation has been complicated by the expansion of maritime frontiers, which in turn mark claims to undersea hydrocarbon assets that can now be exploited with advanced technology, as well as rich fishing stocks.

Apart from isolated Russian military garrisons, only five islands are permanently inhabited, with a population roughly equivalent to Japan’s prewar settlers. Japan has refused a diplomatic resolution even as the USSR and its successor, the Russian Federation, maintain that the Kuriles have in fact been Russian for centuries and that their reconquest in 1945 simply restored territory that had been lost. In contrast, a September 2010 defense whitepaper proclaimed the Northern Territories part of Japan’s “inviolable” territory.

Time for a resolution?

The estimated costs for resolving Japan’s nuclear catastrophe are now over $300 billion, and Fukushima’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, now predicts that the nuclear emergency will continue for the next six to nine months. Many specialists believe that the only long-term solution may be to encase the reactors in concrete, a technique used at Chernobyl, making Russia uniquely qualified to assist Japan. Tokyo is now considering Rosatom’s proposal to use Russian equipment with filters capable of absorbing radioactive cesium 137 to process Fukushima’s radioactive water, while Moscow has offered to dispatch its Landysh vessel, designed to process liquid radioactive waste.

Russia could offer another enticement to Tokyo: preferential access to its hydrocarbon resources. After the tsunami, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered an acceleration of the Sakhalin-3 liquefied natural gas (LNG) project to meet shortfalls in Japan’s energy supply. Japan’s Mitsui and Mitsubishi corporations already have stakes in the $22 billion Sakhalin-2 LNG project, which produces 10 million tons of LNG annually. The Russian Far East is the most isolated and poor of the country’s regions, despite eastern Siberia’s vast wealth of resources. A final disposition of the Kuriles issue also could conceivably allow Japanese money and technology to develop the poor and isolated Russian Far East containing Siberia’s vast wealth of untapped resources, with benefits for both sides.

It would seem a propitious time for Tokyo to accept Moscow’s offers to monitor radiation, resolve the radiation leaks and assist children exposed to Fukushima’s radiation leaks. Thoughtful Japanese might question nationalistic commitment to a few islands, rather than including the islands in negotiations in exchange for the expertise of one of the Cold War’s two nuclear superpowers.

Dr John CK Daly is a non-resident Fellow at Johns Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC. He received his PhD in Russian and Middle Eastern studies from the University of London. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

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