The Kurile Islands Dispute

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Case Number: 8

Case Identifier: KURILE

Case Name: Kurile Islands Dispute



1. Abstract

More than fifty years have passed since the end of World War II, and no peace treaty has been concluded between Japan and the former Soviet Union. The reason for this delay is the unresolved Northern Territory issue. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan lost those islands, the Kuriles to Russia. Russia clings to its territory in the rich fishing grounds of the North Pacific, defying, Japan, which wants the southern Kuriles, the islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Etorofu and Kunashir back. It is considered that the territorial dispute is both political and economic issue. On the other hand, the inhabitants on the islands just wish their hard lives to get easier, especially after the Cold War, due to economic difficulties without much help from the Russian government.

2. Description

1) History
Japan and Russia have a long and contentious history in the Kurile Islands. Cossack trappers in search of fur seal and sea otter came from the north in the 1700s, even as Japan's powerful Matsumae clan was trying to subjugate the native people in the southern Kuril islands. These people, who came to be called, Ainu are of mysterious origins, but they may have migrated from northeast Asia thousands of years ago, settling as far as south as Hokkaido. Scholars have advocated various theories about the origin of Ainu people. The theories include the Caucasoid (Caucasian) theory, the Mongoloid theory, the Oceanis Race theory, the Old Asian Race theory and others. However, there is no precisely proven and believed theory about the Ainu. No Ainu live in the Kuriles today, but about 24,000 Japanese report Ainu ancestry.

Ainu who lived in Hokkaido, the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin were called "Hokkaido Ainu," "Kurile Ainu" and "Sakhalin Ainu" respectively. The Ainu people regarded things useful to them or beyond their control as the result of "kamuy" or god. In daily life, they prayed to and performed various ceremonies for the gods. These gods are considered to include "nature" gods, such as of fire, water, wind and thunder; "animal" gods, such as of bears, foxes, spotted owls and so on. Gods which protect houses, gods of mountains and lakes are also worshiped by Ainu people.

Japan and Russia first established diplomatic relations in 1855. In that same year, the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation (the Shimoda Treaty,) which provides for an agreement on national boundaries, between the two was established. Article two of the treaty states a Japanese-Russian border shall lie between the islands of Iturup (Etorofu) and Urup. The whole of Etorofu shall belong to Japan, and the Kurile Islands lying to the north of and including Urup, shall belong to Russia. With regard to Sakhalin Island, rather than establishing a boundary, historical precedent was continued. This treaty between Japan and Russia, reportedly, was concluded after peaceful negotiations and took into account all activities of the two nations in the vicinity of the Sakhalin and Kurile Islands prior to the time of the treaty's conclusion. Commodore Putyatin, a Russian representative to the negotiations reportedly stated at the time of treaty signing that it had been proven that Etorofu island could be a point of future conflict with Japan. This is conclusion was the result of a careful and precise survey, conducted in an effort to avoid future conflict. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, a document was recently made public in Russia, which demonstrates that Czar Nicholas I recognized that the Urup island was the southernmost boundary of Russian territory.

Two erroneous claims were made regarding this treaty. One of these claims was that Japan forced this treaty on Russia, knowing that Russia was at that time in difficulty because of the Crimean War. This is completely contrary to the facts. At the time, Russia was a major power in Europe, whereas Japan was still a weak, feudal nation, being pressured by the United States, England and Russia to abandon its 300 -year-old isolationist policy. The second claim was that while the treaty acknowledged Etorofu, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai Islands to be Japanese territories, Russia could still claim historical rights to them as a result of having first discovered and explored them. However, these islands, which are so close to Japan that they can be seen with the naked eye from Hokkaido, hardly seem to require any claim of discovery. In fact, even in "Shoho Okuni Ezu," a map published in Japan in the first half of the seventeenth century, Kunashir and Etorofu Islands are clearly indicated as part of Japan.

The 1855 Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation left Sakhalin Island as a mixed settlement for Japanese and Russian nationals. In order to resolve the complications arising from these ambiguities, negotiations aimed at a division of the island between the two nations were conducted during the 1870s. In these negotiations, Japan called for a division of the island at the fiftieth parallel of north latitude. But, Russia called for a division at the forty eighth parallel. Neither side could come to terms. By concluding the 1875 Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands, Japan and Russia agreed that Japan would hand over title to the Sakhalin Island to Russia. Then, in return, Russia would hand over the Kurile Islands, the eighteen islands from Urup to Shimushu, to Japan. The peaceful negotiations resulted in the Kurile Islands becoming Japanese territory and Sakhalin Island becoming Russian territory.

However, tensions persisted, and in 1904, war broke out. Japan and Russia went to war over Manchuria and other regional interests. As a result of this war, the Portsmouth Peace Treaty was concluded, by which the southern half of Sakhalin Island was ceded by Russia to Japan upon its victory. Although there had been varied developments regarding the territorial delimitation, between Japan and Russia, Etorofu, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai had always been Japanese territories and had never been Russian territories, unlike Sakhalin Island and the Kurile Islands, that is eighteen islands north of Urup.

Some have argued as if the Russo-Japanese War and the resulting Portsmouth Treaty had nullified both the 1855 and 1875 treaties. However, others say that the territorial delimitations established by the two nations in accordance with the 1855 and 1875 treaties were never nullified by either the Russo-Japanese War or the subsequent Portsmouth Treaty. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, recently, a document was published in Russia which stated that until the fall of Imperial Russia, the border between Russia and Japan had been determined by the 1875 and 1905 treaties, which were concluded satisfying all the necessary formal requirements, and providing for no period of validity. In accordance with international law, a newly formed state succeeded. The national boundaries of its predecessor. Therefore, these boundaries continued to be the end of Russian territory under the rule of the Kerenski's provisional government and of Soviet Russia after the Revolution of 1917.

Then, came World War II and the territorial carve-up at the Yalta Conference. The Second World War was fought between September 1939 and August 1945. Japan and the Soviet Union were not at war throughout almost the entire period of the war because a neutrality pact was concluded between the two countries in April 1941. It was valid for five years. However, on August 1945, three days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the day an another one was dropped on Nagasaki, the Soviet Union, violating this neutrality pact, entered into war against Japan that was already on the brink of defeat. A week later, on August 14, Japan accepted the Potsdam Proclamation and surrendered to the Allied Powers.

After Japan's defeat, all of its territories were occupied by the Allied forces. The Allied Powers agreed that Japan proper would be under American occupation; Taiwan would fall under Chinese occupation; and that Sakhalin Island and the Kurile Islands would be occupied by the Soviet forces. Soviet forces occupied Shimushu Island in the Kuriles on August 18, and on August 27, moved as far south as Urup Island, which is the southernmost point of the Kurile Islands, and then retreated. However, after assuring themselves that American forces were absent, by September 3, Soviet troops dared to occupy Etorofu, Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai islands. The occupation of the Northern Territories was wartime occupation carried out without bloodshed after the cease fire. Consequently, it was an issue that should have been finally resolved as a result of a peace treaty. It is reported that Joseph Stalin told President Franklin Roosevelt; " I only want to have returned to Russia what Japanese have taken from my country." Japan says that it is not bound by a secret agreement that did not legally transfer the southern Kuriles.

During a time of war, occupation of one country's territory by another can take place and according to international ar, the occupying country has the right to put the territory, based on military requirements, under its administration. However, at the same time, an occupying nation's obligation, including respect for the private rights of the residents are provided for by international norms including the 1907 Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land. Stalin ignored these international norms and incorporated the territories under occupation into its own territory by the Decree of Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, dated February 2, 1946. This act was executed without a peace treaty and was in complete violation of international law. However, under the totalitarian system, this annexation was disguised as if it were a legal act, and such propaganda had long been continued as if the islands of Etorofu, Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai had legally become Soviet territory. Consequently, the misconception that these were indeed Soviet territories began to take hold among people in the Soviet Union. In addition, reportedly, a misunderstanding arose that the resolution of the territorial issue between Japan and Russia is the question of ceding something that is originally Soviet territory to Japan, or the question of selling out such territory to Japan.

2) Post-war Issues
The peace treaty between Japan and the Allied Powers including the United States and the United Kingdom, was signed in San Francisco in 1951. The Soviet Union participated in the conference, but did not sign the treaty. It is considered that there are two important points regarding the Northern Territories in both the context of the San Francisco Peace Conference and the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

The first point concerns Japan's renunciation of all rights to the Kurile Islands and the southern half of Sakhalin Island in accordance with the treaty. The "Kurile Islands" that Japan renounced did not include Etorofu, Kunashir, Shikotan, or Habomai islands, which had always been Japanese territories. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, the United States government also state in its official document that the "Kurile Islands" in the San Francisco Peace Treaty does not include and was not intended to include the Habomai Islands, or Shikotan, or the islands of Kunashir and Etorofu which have always been part of Japan proper and therefore under Japanese sovereignty.

The second point is that the Soviet inclusion of the southern half of Sakhalin Island, the Kurile Islands, and the Northern Territories into their territory reportedly could not receive recognition by international society. Then, Foreign Minister Ar made efforts, including submitting proposed amendments to the treaty draft, so that Soviet sovereignty over these areas would be recognized, but it was not accepted by the conference, and was not included in the San Francisco Peace Treaty. For this and other reasons, the Soviet Union did not sign the treaty. The San Francisco Peace Treaty expressly stipulates that the treaty shall not confer any benefits on any non-signatory reportedly.

Since the Soviet Union did not sign the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan and the Soviet Union negotiated for the conclusion of a separate peace treaty between June 1955 and October 1956. During these negotiations, Japan reportedly claimed territorial rights to Etorofu, Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai, and demanded the return of these islands, but the position maintained by the Soviet Union was that they would return Shikotan and Habomai, but could not return Etorofu and Kunashir. Thus, the negotiations did not reach a conclusion.

Consequently, in place of a peace treaty, the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration was concluded which is a treaty providing for the termination of the state of war and the resumption of diplomatic relations. This treaty stipulates in Article 9 that after diplomatic relations have been established, the peace treaty negotiations shall be continued and the Soviet Union shall hand over the Habomai and Shikotan Islands to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.

In principle, the issue of Habomai and Shikotan Islands has already been resolved by this Declaration. Thus, it is considered that only the question of Etorofu and Kunashir Islands remain as an issue to be resolved in the peace treaty negotiations.

3) Recent Events
Japan and the Soviet Union continued intermittent peace treaty negotiations after the conclusion of the Declaration, but no substantive results were achieved. One particular reason for this was that under the Soviet totalitarian regime, the adamant position was maintained for a long period of time, that no territorial dispute had ever existed.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in April 1991, at the time of the visit of then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to Japan, the Japan-Soviet Joint Communique issued expressly mentioned the Islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Etorofu, and Kunashir. Furthermore, in the Communique, it was agreed that the peace treaty should be the document marking the final resolution of war-related issues, including the territorial issue and that work to conclude the preparation of a peace treaty would be accelerated. In September 1992, the Joint Compendium of Document on the History of Territorial Problems between Japan and Russia was released simultaneously in both countries.

In October 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Japan, and after negotiating with then Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, the Tokyo Declaration was signed. The Declaration established the clear basis for negotiations toward an early conclusion of a peace treaty through the solution of the territorial issue on the basis of historical and legal facts and based on the documents produced with the two countries' agreement as well as on the principles of law and justice. Since then, the Tokyo Declaration has been repeatedly confirmed as the basis of the development of bilateral relations between the two countries.

At the time of visit of First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Oleg Soskovets to Japan in November 1994, both sides confirmed the intention of the two countries to proceed consistently even further for the early conclusion of a peace treaty, based on the Tokyo Declaration.

In April 1996, on the occasion of the Moscow Nuclear Safety Summit, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Boris Yeltsin had a meeting to discuss bilateral questions, Russia' s reform course, and international issues, which was successful in creating a political impetus for advancing overall relations between the two countries in a balanced manner. As for the territorial issue, the two leaders confirmed that bilateral relations be developed further on the basis of the Tokyo Declaration, and agreed that it is important to revitalize the peace treaty negotiations at the Foreign Minister level. For this purpose, they also agreed to restart Peace Treaty working Group after Russia's presidential election.

When Japan lost the islands, 17,000 Japanese were expelled, most from the southern islands of Shikotan, Iturup, the Habomais, and Kunashir, just 13 miles from Hokkaido. Ever since, Japan has pressed a claim to what it calls the Northern Territories.

Only five islands are permanently inhabited. Paramushir has an estimated 4,500 people. Kunashir has 4,000 people; Shikotan has 1,500 people; the Habomais has 300, and Iturup-- from where Japan launched the attack on Pearl Harbor has 6,000 people.

It is also important to note that perhaps thousands of Russian border troops in lonely bases throughout the Kuriles.

President Boris Yeltsin announced during his visit to Japan in 1993 that Russia would withdraw all military troops other than border troops from the Northern Territories. Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov explained to Foreign Minister Yukihiro Ikeda that the present number of Russian military troops in the Northern Territories is 3,500 and there are none on Shikotan Island, reportedly.

Still back in late 1950s, a young man with little education could earn nearly three times as much in the Kurile's as on the mainland Russia. This was because the Soviet government was encouraging pioneers to settle the Pacific frontier to open up its vast resources. The government took care of these people with generous subsidies for schools, health care, and other social services. Back then, every year, it was possible for the young couple to take a month's vacations on the "continent," as islanders call the mainland Russia.

After the visit of then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to Japan in 1991, the framework was established for mutual visits without passports or visas between Japanese citizens and the current Russian residents of the Northern Territories. This was done as a provisional measure to enhance mutual understanding and create an appropriate environment for negotiations toward the solution of the territorial issue and the conclusion of a peace treaty until these matters are resolved.

4) Japan's Enduring Interest
Under this framework, it is reported that 1,381 Japanese nationals visited the Northern Territories and 1,400 current Russian residents of the Northern Territories visited Japan during the period 1992-1995.

A visit to the graves in the Northern Territories, where the remains of relatives of the former Japanese residents are at rest, was first made in 1964, as a result of negotiations with the Soviet side. These negotiations were conducted from a humanitarian viewpoint, in response to the yearnings of the former Japanese residents. After enduring difficulties to reach agreement between Japanese side and the Soviet side with respect to voyage procedures, the talks were resumed in 1986 and have been made continuously since. Since 1990 visits have been made to all the four islands of the Northern Territories.

Now, most of the Russian civilians on the islands live in seven towns, in which 40 percent of the houses do not have indoor plumbing. Live there has always been hard, reportedly. But, especially, since the end of Soviet rule, government support has dwindled, and it is become even harder. One problem is that nearly all the wealth from the main industry-- fishing-- goes to Moscow.

Kurile islanders may be the kin of mainland Russians, bound by blood and language, but in a sense, they are also the citizens of a client state, whose wealth is extracted and sent abroad. Changing old process of fishing industry on the islands was Boris Yeltsin's aim in December 1992, when he issued an order to create Kuril Islands free economic zone. The idea was to liberate the islands from the heavy hand of Moscow by giving them control over the exports, the right to keep foreign currency earned through trade, and the power to impose quotas on foreign vessels fishing in Kuril waters. Also, the tax on a company's earnings, now about eighty percent, would drastically cut to give entrepreneurs to start new businesses. But, Yeltsin could not authorize the plan. Under the Russian constitution, only the Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly, can do that, and so far the Duma balked.

The population shrank by a third following the devastating earthquake in 1994, though some of those who left are now returning. Despite all the hardships, the rough volcanic islands exert a powerful hold. It is the same kind of frontier appeal that makes Alankans such vehement boosters of their state, reportedly.

3. Duration: 1945 to now

4. Location

Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Country: Russia

5. Actors: Russia and Japan

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Species Loss Sea

7. Type of Habitat: Ocean

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site       Harm Site           Example

Japan          Russia              Fishing Disputes and Territory

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict

10. Level of Conflict

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Beyond furs, the Kurils were a strategic prize: a Pacific frontier for Russia, stepping-stones to mainland Asia for Japan. Otters, fur seals, and sea lions, once abundant throughout entire chain, now only exists in small colonies.

Part from their geopolitical value, which waned since the end of the Cold War, the Kuriles are awash in valuable salmon, flounder, tuna, shrimp, clams, and crab, as well as kelp and sea urchins, some of the delicacies in Japan. The rivers seasonally overflow with salmon and the off-shore waters support large populations of cod, mackeral, and ocean perch. The southern region of the Kurils, bordering on the subtropic zone and at the center of the political dispute, contains the most diverse and abundant flora due to its heavy rainfall and warm ocean currents.

There have been some incidents with regard to the control over these sea resources and others. For example, The Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press reported in 1994 that according to an Itar-Tass report, five Japanese fishing vessels intruded into Russian territorial waters near the South Kurile Island of Anuchin in March. Itar-Tass also reported that the vessels violated the border in full view of their own coast guard. Ships and helicopters of the Pacific Border District were dispatched to the scene of the incident. Not waiting for the events to take a dangerous turn, the Japanese vessels reportedly set off for Japanese waters at full speed. Interfax reported that the violators were expelled from Russian territorial waters by the coast guard ship Amur. The poachers reportedly could not be detained due to their speed advantage. Then, the border patrol only destroyed the nets the poachers had cast. That same day, Admiral Nikolai Kudinov, commander of Border Troops naval forces, issued a statement saying that the Border Troops, together with the Navy, will protect the state's economic and national interests by all means permitted by international law. In turn, the Japanese Maritime Security Administration, which functions as a coast guard, reportedly, told an Itar-Tass correspondent in Tokyo that it has no information about any incidents in the vicinity of the South Kuriles.

The violation of the Northern Territory border is nothing sensational. It can in no way be compared with the violation that occurred on January 21-2 of 1994, reports the Current Digest. On January 21-2, 80 Japanese ships blatantly entered Russian territorial waters in the vicinity of Kunashir Island. What is different, however, is the report that Japanese coast guard ships were involved in the incident, says the Current Digest. The Russian side said at that time that it lacked reliable information as to whether Japanese fishermen enjoyed the direct support of their government. However, Moscow did have information about the insurance benefits paid to the owners of confiscated vessels. Be that as it may, Admiral Kudinov reportedly warned that in April 1994, the border troops and the Pacific Fleet would begin a large-scale operation code-named "Fishing Season" to prevent poaching in Russian waters with the continuous operation until October.

In August 1994, Japan Times reported that the Japanese government was hoping to approve a non-governmental fishery agreement with Russia to ensure safe fishing in the waters surrounding disputed islands off Hokkaido, according to government sources. The agreement would be designed to obtain Russia's guarantee that Japanese fishing vessels would not be harassed in their operations in the vicinity of the disputed territories, in exchange for Japan providing Russia funds for protection of the region's fishery resources or for other specific purposes. The government, however, will reject a "fees-for-fishing" formula of direct payment of Japanese fishing rights that it believes could undermine the government's long-standing argument that the four islands seized by the Soviet army at the end of World War II and still held by Japanese territory, reportedly.

The Japanese government's decision to change its stance over the issue was promoted by the last shooting and seizure by the Russian coast guard of a Japanese fishing boat allegedly poaching in Russian-patrolled waters near the disputed islands, reported Japan Times.

Roughly a third of Russia's fishing catch comes from the greater trawlers that fish those waters are from Sakhalin and other ports outside the Kuriles. Most of the 200 million dollars they bring in goes directly to Moscow as taxes, duties and other fees. In 1994, the Russian government earmarked only 25 million dollars for investment in the Kuriles. Yet somehow even that small sum has been spent elsewhere, as Vladimir Korelski, chairman of Russia's Fishing Committee, reluctantly admitted. In cash-strapped Russia, the Kuriles Islands just do not have much pull.

If the economic zone is put in place, trade with Japan will increase, and the Kuriles will attract new factories, fishing fleets, homes, and prosperity. For the moment, though, any hopes for a better future are clouded by the political dispute over the islands, which could keep them from taking part in the anticipated boom in Russia's resources, rich Far East.

13. Level of Strategic Interest

14. Outcome of Dispute:

IV. Related Information and Sources

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16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Websites International Kurile Island Project(IKIP) Home Page


"Points of No Return," The New York Times Magazine(September 13, 1992):38-40, 88.96-7.

deVillafrance, Richard. "Japan and the Northern Territories Dispute-- Past, Present, Future --," Asian Survey volume XXXIII, no. 6, (June 1993):610-24.

"Japan:Boris, About Our Islands,"The Economistvol.320 n.7722 (August 31, 1991) :31.

Far Eastern Economic Review (June 21, 1990):202-3.

Carlie, E. Lonny."The Changing Political Economy and Fall of Seikei Fukabun," Pacific Affairs

Cobb E. Charles, Jr. "Storm Watch over the Kurils,"National Geographic (October 1996):48-67.

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