Japan-Russia Relations: Can the Northern Territories Issue be Overcome?

By Yoko Hirose —

Etorofu/Iturup Island from space in 2010. Control over the four southernmost islands in the Kuril Islands, collectively known as the “Northern Territories” are disputed between Russia and Japan. Source: NASA, U.S. Government Work.

Russia and Japan are neighbors, but their relationship is often labeled in Japan as “close (geographically) and distant (politically).” The leading reasons are that a treaty of friendship has not been concluded between Japan and Russia, and the Northern Territories issue has not been resolved. These two issues are interlinked, because it seems impossible that Japan and Russia would conclude a treaty of friendship without resolution of the Northern Territories issue. For Japan, the resolution of the Northern Territories issue means recovering the four disputed islands, but Russia maintains that there is no territorial dispute between the two countries.

For reference, the Northern Territories consist of four islands located off the northeast coast of the Nemuro Peninsula of Hokkaido. The four islands are Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri, and Etorofu. Russia has had effective control of the Northern Territories since the end of World War II, arguing that they are included in the Kuril Islands. Many other foreign countries including the U.S. and the most of foreign world maps call the Northern Territories the Kuril Islands, but this post adopts the Northern Territories according to the Japanese point of view.

Japanese authorities think that now could be the time to resolve the territorial issue. Giving away territory tends to lead to public anger, so such decisions require a strong leader who is broadly supported by the people. Given Vladimir Putin’s political dominance in Russia, Japan hopes that Putin can resolve the territorial issue and conclude a treaty of friendship. Although Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made serious efforts to resolve the issues by proposing new approaches, there have not been any major breakthroughs. Russia is an important neighbor and Tokyo should seek not only to improve relations with Moscow, but also to establish a strategically beneficial partnership. To attain this objective, Japan should adopt the following policies.

First, Japan should maintain its diplomatic policies over multiple administrations. Japanese diplomacy has never been stable in the post-Cold War period, since Japanese prime ministers and governments tended to be short-lived. Changing the top leadership tends to confuse diplomatic efforts, because different leaders favor different policies. Diplomatic negotiations and concluded agreements may be canceled, leading foreign leaders to want to avoid negotiations with short-term governments.

Second, Japan should make use of Russia’s “Pivot to Asia” to improve bilateral ties. As mentioned previously, the Russian government tried to increase its influence in Asia after 2014, when the Ukraine crisis worsened. Putin has been embracing an Asia-oriented foreign policy and Japan is one Asian country that has an interest in cooperating with Russia. However, Japan has not made use of its strategic position in its diplomacy with Russia. To do so, Japan should demonstrate its potential as a long-term partner in Russia’s “Pivot to Asia.” The present Japanese approach to Russia tends to focus on the bilateral relationship, but Japan should think more about the regional and international aspects of its diplomacy with Russia.

Third, Japan should seek to prevent the Russia-China relationship from growing closer. In recent years, Russia and China have deepened their relationship and this strategic cooperation works against Japanese interests. Russia and China share common interests in global strategy, ideology, economy, historical perspective, and Eurasian projects. Both have argued that they are responsible for the Asian peace after World War II. They also assert that the Northern Territories are Russian and the Senkaku Islands are Chinese. Such arguments are serious for Japan, and Japan wants to avoid Russia and China cooperating on territorial issues.

Fourth, the Japanese government should deepen national education about the history of territorial problems and support academic research on the subject. Such education serves as the basis for Japan’s stance and influences Japanese perceptions on the Northern Territories issue. To date, Japanese education on history and the Northern Territories issue has not been sufficient; many young people do not understand the issue. For example, the Japanese government has called the Northern Territories inherent Japanese territory, but this view is not shared internationally and is not understood even by the Japanese public. The different views of the definitions and understandings about the Chishima Islands, the Northern Territories, the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact, and other issues should be made clear in Japanese education.

Fifth, Japan should embrace a strategic and stable but flexible strategy regarding Russia. This strategy must be profitable not only for Japan and Russia, but also for the region and the world, including the United States. Such a policy would not be opposed by other countries but would rather win broad support. To accomplish this aim, Japan should propose win-win projects with Russia. In addition, Japan should hurry because it has little time to resolve the Northern Territories issue. Most former Japanese residents of the Northern Territories have died and only a small number of previous resident remain alive. Meanwhile, the Russification of the Northern Territories is moving ahead.

For Japan, recovering all the Northern Territories is certainly important, however, Japan should also think about alternative scenarios. This is important not only for both governments, but also for the current and former residents of the Northern Territories, who are becoming more practical. According to an opinion survey, former residents — and especially their descendants — on the Northern Territories have become more pessimistic about the recovery of the Northern Territories in recent decades and many of them are not willing to live there (see Table 1). In addition, the most important condition for the former residents and descendants seems to be free access to the Northern Territories, since they want to visit their ancestors’ graves.

Table 1: Do you think the Northern Territory will be returned? (1991 vs 2015)

  Yes, they will be returned No, they will not be returned Do not know No answer
Former residents (1991) 63.3% 13.4% 20.6% 2.7%
Former residents (2015) 13.9% 51.4% 30.6% 4.2%
Descendants (1991) 53.6% 18.4% 25.2% 2.7%
Descendants (2015) 14.4% 46.3% 35.6% 3.7%
1991 Total 58.9% 15.7% 22.7% 2.7%
2015 Total 14.1% 49.0% 32.9% 4.0%

Source: Created by the author from survey information from NHK.

There are many difficult issues preventing Japan from improving relations with Russia. Therefore, concluding a Treaty of Friendship will continue to be a heavy task. Yet, Japan should enthusiastically embrace its opportunity to develop favorable relations with Russia and solve the Northern Territories issues once and for all.

Dr. Yoko Hirose is a Professor in the Faculty of Policy Management of Keio University, Japan, and visiting researcher at Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland from March 2017 to March 2018.

In 2018, Dr. Hirose was a Visiting Scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Dr. Hirose’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign policy.


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