The biggest problem in Russian-Japanese relations is Tokyo’s claim to the southern Kuril Islands – Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai.
These four islands (actually, Habomai is a group of islets) were turned over to the Soviet Union as a result of WWII, and Russia “inherited” them as the legal successor of the Soviet Union after its dissolution. But Japan claims that the Soviet Union occupied them at the end of WWII illegally.
The first Soviet leader to recognize the territorial dispute was Mikhail Gorbachev, who was elected head of the Communist Party in 1985. The search for a solution continued on and off through the 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century, but the sides cannot come to an agreement. Russia believes the solution lies in the Joint Declaration of 1956, in which the Soviet Union agreed to transfer Habomai and Shikotan to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. But Japan continues to claim the right to all the four islands.
But this has not hindered the development of bilateral cooperation in trade, the economy and other spheres of relations.
But Tokyo’s unexpectedly pained reaction to then President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Kunashir in November 2010 brought bilateral relations down to a record low since 1991. Japanese authorities sharply criticized Russia, which, predictably, returned the blow.
Japan’s hopes were revived when Vladimir Putin said before his election in the spring of 2012 that a compromise solution to the territorial dispute should be found. Bilateral relations improved, and plans were made for the Russian president’s official visit to Japan in late 2014.
However, Japan adopted anti-Russian sanctions over Ukraine and made a number of inconsistent statements regarding the planned visit, which indicated that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not ready to meet with Putin. The situation improved when Putin’s visit was rescheduled for 2015 at a meeting between Putin and Abe during the APEC summit in Beijing in November 2014.
Considering that Japan’s sanctions are not actually damaging and were influenced by Tokyo’s attempt to balance relations with Moscow and Washington, Russia has decided to continue political ties with Japan, including at the top level. Another reason is that Moscow wants to maintain good relations with the world’s third largest economy to offset the destructive Western sanctions.
Putin’s visit to Japan will reinforce the positive aspects of bilateral relations that have built up since Abe’s visit to Russia in April 2013, mostly thanks to personal relations between Putin and Abe. This is very important for the Japanese leader in light of Japan’s confrontation with its nuclear-capable neighbors – China and South Korea as well as North Korea, from which the biggest nuclear threat comes, according to Tokyo.
However, Japanese politicians and political analysts noticed in the summer of 2015 that Russia’s attitude to the territorial issue has harshened. They made this conclusion from the visits by high-ranking Russian officials to the southern Kuril Islands and the adoption of a socioeconomic development plan for the islands for 2016−2025.
Tensions came to a head when Prime Minister Medvedev visited Iturup in August 2015. Japanese commentators described it as Moscow’s unwillingness to part with the disputed islands and questioned the possibility of Putin’s visit to Japan. But in September, when Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida came to Moscow, the sides reaffirmed their agreement on Putin’s visit.
Despite their differences and Japan’s sanctions against Russia, Putin and Abe met on September 28 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, after foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov and Fumio Kishida held talks in Moscow. Putin and Abe agreed to continue working toward Putin’s planned visit at both sides’ convenience. The Japanese media reported that Abe also expressed a desire to improve political and economic relations with Russia and to hold talks on a peace treaty.
The two leaders agreed in Moscow in April 2013 that the talks on a peace treaty should be accelerated. Abe said on September 28, 2015: “Concerning the territorial issue, we need to make progress in line with our agreement made in 2013.”
In saying this, the Japanese leader has reaffirmed the connection between a peace treaty and the settlement of the territorial dispute, which implies the transfer of the Northern Territories, as the southern Kuril Islands are called in Tokyo, to Japan.
Putin and Abe also agreed to adjust their schedules so as to meet at the G20 summit in Turkey this November or at the APEC summit in the Philippines.
Japanese analysts also noticed that Russia has not changed its stand on the disputed islands despite the above agreements. Their conclusion is based on the argument that Putin did not once mention the “territorial issue” but only spoke about “peace treaty talks” during his meeting with Abe in New York. At the same time, Abe didn’t bring up Medvedev’s recent visit to the southern Kuril Islands so as not to fan tensions. He only expressed hope that “preparations for the visit [of Putin] will be made in a constructive and calm atmosphere.” As for Putin, he expressed confidence that economic cooperation between the two countries has great potential.
In other words, the Russian and Japanese leaders consider it necessary to continue bilateral dialogue and to strengthen economic and other cooperation despite the difference of opinions on the territorial issue and, consequently, the dim future of the peace treaty.
Japan will obviously continue to condition the signing of a peace treaty on the settlement of the territorial dispute, presenting this as a priority in relations with Russia and putting its stakes on Putin. Japanese analysts believe that Russia’s current economic difficulties due to Western sanctions and falling oil prices could help settle the territorial dispute in Japan’s favor.
The essence of this strategy was put forth by Yomiuri Shimbun in a September 30, 2015 editorial, which said, in part: “The recent hardline stance of the Russian Foreign Ministry on the territorial issue is intolerable. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that Japan should recognize the reality of postwar history. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov even said that the northern territories were lawfully transferred to his country as a result of World War II. Russia, in diplomatic documents exchanged with Japan, has recognized the existence of the dispute concerning the possession of the four northern islands. As Russian officials, including Lavrov, have adopted stances that apparently ignore past bilateral negotiations, it will be important for Japan to directly approach Putin, who has tremendous political power.”
In conclusion, the article says that Japan needs to work out a comprehensive diplomatic strategy toward Russia by thoroughly considering what things will be like two to three years from now, while Putin and Abe remain in power. Japan hopes that these two charismatic leaders, who are trusted by the public in their countries, will resolve the issue of the disputed islands in Japan’s favor.
But Japan is unlikely to get what it wants, especially in the 70th year since the end of WWII, as a result of which Russia became the legal owner of the southern Kuril Islands.