Northern Territories and a Search for Japanese-Russian Rapprochement
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF

Lit. “Three Years on a Rock” (“One must be prepared to persevere at something for a long time before expecting to start seeing results.”)

The above mentioned kotowaza truly signifies Shinzo Abe’s efforts to engage Vladimir Putin, and consequently Russia, since the beginning of his second administration in December 2012. In 2013, Abe became the first Japanese leader in a decade to officially visit Russia and has now held 16 Japan-Russia summits1 with Putin in his two terms as Japanese Prime Minister. The most recent Abe-Putin summit was held during December 15-16 in Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture and Tokyo. A lingering territorial dispute over the four islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Habomai and Shikotan (called the Northern Territories by Japan and Southern Kuril Islands by Russia) — has led to Japan and Russia being unable to negotiate a peace treaty even after 7 decades post-World War II. Abe’s perseverance is remarkable since he has held more summits with Putin (almost double) than with US President Obama during his tenure. Though there has been no momentous progress on resolving the peace treaty dilemma, Japan’s vigorous desire to engage Russia indicates a substantial change in Japan’s geostrategic approach and thinking. This is even more significant at a time when the west under US leadership had rhetorically emphasized on the “continued unity2” of its partners in dealing with Russia amidst growing tensions post-Ukraine Crisis.

Japan and Russia began their modern-day relations with the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda (signed by Tokugawa Shogunate) which also sought to settle their boundary issue, including the sovereignty over the Sakhalin and Kuril Islands. While the island of Etorofu was explicitly given to Japan, the islands of Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai Islands ambiguously mentioned in the treaty were understood, at that time, to be part of Japan. Russia was given the rest of the Kurils. The territorial status of the Sakhalin Island was left undetermined. Under the 1875 Treaty of Saint Petersburg, all the Kurils became Japanese while Russia received Sakhalin. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, and the subsequent 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, the southern part of Sakhalin was transferred to Japan as reparation. With wavering hostilities in the between period until Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945 (and the Potsdam Declaration), the Soviet Union under the terms of the Yalta Conference put all the Kurils, including the four islands and the whole of Sakhalin, under its administrative control3.

The ambiguities and disagreements in the provisions of post-World War II agreements have been at the center of the territorial dispute. While the Cairo Declaration of 1943 did not explicitly mention the Kuril Islands, it stated that Japan will be expelled from all territories which it had taken by ‘violence and greed’. The Yalta Agreement of February 1945, to convince the Soviet Union to enter into war against Japan on the side of the Allied Powers, reiterated that the southern part of Sakhalin as well as Kuril Islands under Japanese control would be returned to the Soviet Union. The Potsdam Declaration in August 1945 specified that Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and minor islands as “determined". The problem arose with Soviet objection during the preparation of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, a peace treaty between the Allies and Japan. The exigencies created by beginnings of the Cold War following the Communist Victory in China and conflict on the Korean peninsula, led the US to considerably soften on Japan and reversed its position in relation to the Yalta and Potsdam agreements4.

With the signing of the San Francisco Treaty, Japan gave up all claims on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands as per Article 2(c), though the US State Department later clarified that Northern Territories weren’t part of the Kuril chain and since Soviet Union did not sign the treaty, its territorial rights and sovereignty cannot be recognized. The US underscored the phrase "and such minor islands as we determine" could be justified in transferring the Northern Territories to Japan. During the 1956 peace talks between Japan and the Soviet Union, the Soviet side proposed that Shikotan and Habomai be returned to Japan upon the conclusion of the peace treaty. Even though Etorofu and Kunashiri’s return remained contentious, Japan was initially agreeable to the Soviet Union’s proposal. However, the US government intervened and blocked the deal. The US warned Japan that a withdrawal of the Japanese claim on Etorofu and Kunashiri would mean the US too could keep Okinawa, causing Japan to refuse the Soviet terms. Thus, the dispute over the sovereignty of the Kuril Islands remained unresolved and was postponed until the conclusion of a permanent peace treaty between Japan and Soviet Union.

The ensuing Cold War Era ensured that need for a Japan-Russia rapprochement lost ground as Japan completely aligned with the US who was its prime ally and security guarantor. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev visited Japan in 1991 and signed a communiqué recognizing the territorial dispute5. The subsequent Yeltsin administration in its 1993 Tokyo Declaration too held the 1956 declaration to be the template for any Russian-Japanese engagement. Yeltsin apologized for the Soviet mistreatment of Japanese prisoners of war after World War, while Japan in turn extended financial support to Russian market-oriented economic reforms. In 2001, with Putin becoming president, Japan and Russia recognized the 1956 declaration as the starting point of negotiations to resolve the question of islands’ sovereignty. Situation became complex in 2005, when the European Parliament issued an official statement recommending the return of the Northern Territories to Japan by Russia. The next year, controversy arose again when a Russian maritime patrol killed a Japanese fisherman and captured a crab fishing boat in the waters around the disputed islands.

The latter half of the first decade of the new millennium saw the Kuril Islands dispute take a highly nationalistic color in both countries. 2008 saw a textbook controversy arise when Japan published textbooks claiming that it held sovereignty over the Kuril Islands. Though efforts were made at reconciliation between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese PM Taro Aso in 2009, conflict arose when Medvedev visited Kunashiri to assert Russian sovereignty just the next year. In 2011, Medvedev further ordered significant reinforcements to the Russian defenses by deploying advanced anti-air missiles systems and upgrading the stationed artillery division to a modern motorized infantry brigade on the Kuril Islands. With Abe and Putin returning as state heads in 2013, Japan held its first ever diplomatic talks with the Russia in November 2013, and the first with Moscow since 1973. Relations grew strained all over again after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as Japan joined the US and the European Union in sanctioning Russia for annexing Crimean Peninsula.

In 2016, Abe renewed efforts to mark a breakthrough with Russia with meeting Putin four times. Putin responded by becoming the first Russian President to visit Japan in 11 years in December. In a press conference post the December 15-16 summit, Putin stated that the lack of a Japan-Russia peace treaty was a negative legacy of the past, but insisted that he will stand by the 1956 Japan-Soviet Union joint declaration on resolving the territorial dispute. Though the islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri comprise of more than 93 percent of the disputed territory, even a return of Habomai and Shikotan would be significant since it would give Japan 38 percent of the ocean rights and control over rich fisheries in the region6. Japan has however, reiterated that it will resolve the issue of the return of the four islands first and then conclude the peace treaty. Though Russia has warmed up to Japan in view of its breaking ranks with the outgoing US administration, the resolution of the territorial conflict remains a very distant possibility. The islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri are important for Russia both economically and militarily due to their abundance of natural resources and their strategic location. The islands enhance Russia’s ability to control the access of foreign vessels to the Sea of Okhotsk. Russia deployed the ‘Bastion missile system’ on Etorofu Island and the ‘Bal missile system’ on Kunashiri Island in November this year, just prior to the much touted December summit7.

Though the proposal of joint sovereignty has been mooted, Japan and Russia agreed to expand joint economic engagement under an eight-point cooperation plan proposed by Abe totaling around ¥300 billion and covering over 60 projects8 from energy sector, tourism, transfer of cutting-edge Japanese technologies to higher human exchanges and the industrialization of the Russian Far East. The 2015 bilateral trade between Japan and Russia was around US$ 21 billion9. Japanese government companies even offered to buy 19.5 percent stake in Russia’s energy giant Rosneft part of which had been put up for sale to cover up Russia’s growing debt (the deal however went to Glencore and the Qatar fund subsequently)10. Despite the positivity generated by prospects of greater economic cooperation, the ambiguity on the sovereignty of the islands makes the realization path relatively uncertain, since Russia claims the activities should be conducted according to Russian law since the islands are part of its territory. Japan too like Russia, views the Kuril Islands dispute from a nationalist prism and thus remains adamant on seeking Russia’s recognition of its ownership rights, but has made no demands regarding the time of the transfer.

With an undergoing power transition in the region, the need to counterbalance the growing political and military clout of China as well as to handle the North Korean threat, has made good relations with Moscow imperative for Japan. Japan has sought to cultivate more foreign policy options above and beyond enhancing and strengthening US’s extended deterrence in the region. In its gradual steps towards normalcy, Japan is now making efforts at opening new chapters of diplomacy that is discontinuous with historical legacies. This is most indicated in recent efforts towards swiftly resolving the issue of Comfort Women (girls and women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army) with South Korea despite erstwhile efforts at historical revisionism. Even though progress with Russia has been only on economic cooperation, Abe can expand Japan’s involvement in developing the Russian Far East – where Chinese state and private sector investors’ presence has been rapidly accelerating, and thus counter growing Russia- China ties. Following Trump’s election to US presidency and speculations of his reaching out to Russia, Abe has received more diplomatic space to maneuver in his Russian policy. Japan and Russia will resume bilateral “2-plus-2” talks between defense and foreign ministers from next year.

Abe’s efforts at engagement with Putin and Russia thus go beyond the purview of bilateral relations and can be viewed in the context of larger geostrategic prism. Japan’s 2016 Diplomatic Bluebook states that the development of ties with Russia “contributes to Japanese interests and to regional peace and prosperity11.” Thus even if there is no breakthrough in the Kurils dispute per se, the process of Japanese-Russian rapprochement can be said to be more important than the outcome.


  1. The Mainichi: Abe, Putin agree on joint activities but remain apart over isles, December 16, 2016,
  2. Bloomberg: Henry Meyer and Stepan Kravchenko, Abe Eases Putin's Isolation With Talks on Territorial Dispute, May 6, 2016,
  3. Wikipedia: Kuril Islands dispute,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Japan Times: A chronology of rocky relations between Japan and Russia, December 16, 2016,
  6. Financial Times: Robin Harding and Kathrin Hille, Japan and Russia braced for an island challenge, December 13, 2016,
  7. IHS Jane 360: Julian Ryall, Gabriel Dominguez and Neil Gibson,Russia deploys Bal and Bastion-P missile systems to disputed Kuril Islands, says report, November 23, 2016,
  8. Japanese Economic Cooperation with Russia Seen Reaching ¥300 Billion, December 16, 2016,
  9. Russian Exporter: National Information Portal: Japanese-Russian Bilateral Trade in 2015,
  10. Sputnik International: Japanese Investors Showed Interest in Buying 19.5% Rosneft Stake - Russian PM, December 15, 2016,
  11. The Diplomat: James D.J. Brown, Japan's 'New Approach' to Russia, June 28, 2016,

Published Date: 28th December 2016, Image Source:

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