Introduction: The ‘Northern Territories’ Dispute between Japan and Russia
Japan’s northern frontier with Russia has been unstable since Russians and Japanese first penetrated into those areas and encountered each other in the early nineteenth century. The two areas in dispute historically have been the large island of Sakhalin, off the eastern coast of Siberia and due north of Hokkaido, and the chain of Kurile islands (Chishima or ‘a thousand islands’ in Japanese), stretching from the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula to the north-eastern coast of Hokkaido. Between 1855 and 1875 Sakhalin was disputed territory and the Russian-Japanese boundary lay between Urup and Etorofu islands in the Kurile chain. Between 1875 and 1905 Russia possessed all of Sakhalin and Japan all of the Kuriles. A result of the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 was that Japan took possession of the southern half of Sakhalin, while retaining the Kuriles. With the Japanese defeat in 1945 Japan lost southern Sakhalin to the Soviet Union, which also took control of the Kuriles, including both the southern Kurile islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri. Soviet troops also invaded the far smaller islands of Shikotan and the Habomai group, which had been administered as part of Hokkaido.
After the war the Japanese Government first of all made a two-island claim (Shikotan and Habomai) and later a four-island claim (including Etorofu and Kunashiri). A settlement that would have returned Shikotan and Habomai to Japan was almost achieved in 1956, but was frustrated by a US intervention. As a result, no peace treaty has yet been signed between Japan and Russia (nor was it between Japan and the Soviet Union).
Despite the ending of the Cold War, a settlement of the dispute continues to prove elusive. Successive Japanese governments have held out for a maximal four-island return solution, while successive Soviet and Russian governments have been too vulnerable to nationalist criticism to risk giving up territory beyond what would be involved in a two-island return solution.
This territorial dispute is bound up with fisheries questions and with the question of Russian access to the Pacific through the straits between the Kurile islands. Population on the islands, however, is sparse, and the islands have little in the way of natural resources. The dispute should be regarded as an extreme example of a territorial issue where national pride on both sides has been allowed to prevail over economic and political rationality as well as common sense.
Former director of the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, University of Oxford
Selected web-based information resources (for more, search the FMO website)
Ainu (indigenous people of the Kuril Islands)
- Ainu people, Wikipedia
- The Ainu Museum
- Ainu, japan-guide.com
- An Ainu homeland by N. A Ludwig (abstract), Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
- Ainu and Northern Territories, ProKarelia
- Japan’s Northern Territories, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan
- Peace treaty of Japan 1952, National Archives of Japan (Japanese language)
- National Archives of Japan
- Northern Islands Exchange centre (Japanese language)
- Webcam of the northern islands Northern Islands Exchange centre (NIHORO)- (Japanese language. Requires Java Plug-in software)
- The Movement for the Restoration of the Four Northern Islands to Japan, League Of Residents Of Chishima And Habomai Islands
- Kuril Islands News, Sakhalin.info (Russian language)
- Sakhalin and the Kuriles during the Second World War, Sakhalin.info (Russian language)