Compromise Possible on the Northern Territories

The present political situation in the two countries, moreover, is not favorable for advancing territorial negotiations.

I have been asked by the Valdai Discussion Club to comment on the topic of the “Kuril Islands” and Japanese-Russian relations prior to Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s planned visit to Russia. The club wanted to know what would have a positive influence on bilateral relations, “given the fact that the parties are not willing to compromise on the Northern Territories.”

Before answering this question, let me first go over the historical facts regarding the territorial dispute, since I do not agree with the premise that “the parties are not willing to compromise.”

First of all, the Northern Territories—the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai—are not part of the Kuril Islands, which are located to the north of these islands, but are the inherent Japanese territories . They have never belonged to any other country. Russia and Japan have signed several treaties relating to this area in the past (in 1855, 1875 and 1905), in all of which Russia admitted that the four islands are Japanese territory. They were taken and occupied by the former Soviet Union at the very final stages of World War II, or, to be more exact, two weeks after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration.

As far as territorial issues are concerned, my understanding of the Ukrainian situation is that Russia has special interests in the eastern part of that country, particularly, the Crimean Peninsula, owing to the region’s historical ties to Russia. But the Russian occupation of the Northern Territories has no legal grounds. Russia has continued to occupy them over the years while officially admitting in joint declarations that a territorial problem exists between our two countries.

The Japanese people feel that the occupation is illegal and unfair, but inasmuch as the four islands have been under Russian/Soviet control for more than half a century, we have gradually come to accept that there is no choice but to find a compromise. Without resolving the territorial dispute between our two countries, we cannot sign a peace treaty, which is the most important step for both countries in further developing a bilateral partnership, as both governments wish. President Vladimir Putin has referred to achieving a hikiwake, a judo term that means a “draw,” and this has raised expectations among the Japanese public that a compromise is possible.

I do not think it is accurate to say that the Japanese government is “not willing to compromise” on the issue. And I believe the same goes for the Russian government, although the diplomatic authorities of both countries are taking a tough stance before the start of negotiations.

The present political situation in the two countries, moreover, is not favorable for advancing territorial negotiations. From this viewpoint, I do not understand the intentions of the Russian prime minister in visiting Etorofu last month. This is not conducive to creating goodwill, and I strongly protest his actions. This will only lead to angering the Japanese people. To change the atmosphere, we need some positive developments in economic cooperation, particularly in energy exploration or new ideas regarding the shipment of fuels. We need high-level dialogue between political leaders, as well as continued discussion and exchange in the private sector.

While I do not expect a breakthrough from the upcoming visit by Foreign Minister Kishida to Moscow, I do hope that both sides will make the effort to take a step forward in the territorial negotiations.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.