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RussiaProfile.Org: A Matter of Pride

By Paul Abelsky
Russia Profile
October 23, 2006

Russian-Japanese Relations Suffer From A Lack of Compromise

Japan waited 41 years for a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and in September, Princess Kiko threw the country into elation with the birth of the longed-for boy. Russian-Japanese diplomatic relations, mired in an ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands that has befuddled several generations of policymakers, are also due resolution, though a compromise seems increasingly unlikely with every passing year.

Last Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which normalized diplomatic relations and tentatively pointed the way toward a possible compromise. Several events and conferences in Moscow commemorated the occasion, and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso sent a letter to his Russian counterpart reaffirming Japan’s commitment to continuing dialogue over the remaining issues. Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov is preparing to travel to Japan on an official visit, according to a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry. Yet with the new tensions flaring up on the Korean peninsula, the disagreements between Russia and Japan are likely to be sidelined in favor of more immediate political and military concerns.

The fundamental impasse in Russian-Japanese relations centers on the four southernmost islands of the Kuril chain – Kunashir (Kunashiri), Iturup (Etorofu), Shikotan, and the Habomai islets – seized by the Soviet Union in the closing stages of World War II. Japan relinquished its claims to the Kurils under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, but has maintained that the islands under dispute are not actually part of the chain. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Stalin did not sign the San Francisco accord and that the Soviet leadership vowed to return Shikotan and Habomai in the 1956 Moscow declaration, a pledge later abandoned by Khrushchev in 1960 in response to the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

Against this background of recent bickering and controversies, the relationship between Russia and Japan once more finds itself at a crossroads. Shinzo Abe’s assumption of the post of prime minister in late September, after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party overwhelmingly approved his candidacy, hardly augurs a new era in the relationship. Abe’s nationalistic credentials and lack of independent political experience suggest there will be a period of adjustment as he settles into office and begins to craft a foreign policy agenda for the country.

However, after years of diplomatic stalemate, any new variable could also contribute to a more optimistic outcome. “It remains a distinct possibility that Abe will be looking for a new line with Russia,” said Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has written extensively about Russian-Japanese relations. “Right now Japan enters a trial stage, as the country’s government begins to map a strategy for the future. Still, the new prime minister’s first priority is to restore the relationship with China and South Korea, and any attempted settlement of the territorial dispute with Russia will be a bold move.”

Abe is likely to reassess Japan’s foreign policy commitments, already demonstrated by his trip to Beijing in mid-October. It was the first such summit in five years, following a chill in relations caused by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s memorial to war dead, which also honors convicted World War II criminals. Fallout from the visits cast a shadow over Japan’s ties with other Asian powers. In an effort to further patch up neighborly relations, Abe will meet South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun immediately after his trip to China. This policy of rapprochement seems to offset Abe’s nationalistic reputation at home.

“It’s a stretch to call Abe a hawk at this point, because he has yet to distinguish himself in any way,” said Viktor Pavlyatenko, director of the Center for Japanese Studies, a branch of the Moscow-based Institute of the Far East. “His trip to Beijing already shows a degree of pragmatism in his approach. Abe’s reputed nationalism depends on having a certain degree of support at home, and no one can predict tomorrow’s arrangement of political forces in Japan. I don’t think he will make a career for himself with an uncompromising approach to the territorial dispute with Russia. At the same time, he could draw Russia into a new round of talks if he pursues that line.”

Recent months have seen a string of contentious episodes that once more exposed the fault lines in the two countries’ tense relationship. On Aug. 16, the Russian Coast Guard shot dead a Japanese fisherman accused of illegally entering Russian waters near the southern Kuril islands and allegedly engaging in poaching and smuggling. The Japanese side denied the illegal entry and illicit activities claims, demanded compensation for the death, and warned that the incident could further damage bilateral ties.

Recent developments involving the vast Sakhalin-2 energy project, however, soon overshadowed the fatality. Two Japanese companies, Mitsui and Mitsubishi, hold a 45 percent share in the energy project, managed under a production sharing agreement with the Russian government. In July the Sakhalin-2 cost estimate was doubled to $20 billion, drastically reducing the amount that the Russian government would earn on the venture and in September, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources moved to revoke the consortium’s environmental permit, halting all production on the project and delaying delivery of gas to Japan.

The clash served as a bleak prelude to Abe’s tenure, and he warned that a delay in the project’s launch would have “a negative influence on overall Japanese-Russian relations.” Whatever motivations drove the Russian side to pressure its partners, jeopardizing the energy interchange with Japan was not part of the plan. Alexander Losyukov, Russia’s ambassador to Japan, seemed to discount the loss of investor confidence and noted that Gazprom’s possible entry into the venture was likely to quicken the pace of the development and thus meet Japan’s energy expectations.

“Abe’s reaction to the recent developments with Sakhalin-2 was overly emotional,” Pavlyatenko said. “I don’t think he will allow himself to be as demonstrative in the future. The so-called energy partnership between Japan and Russia is mostly a fiction. There isn’t much cooperation.”

At the same time, the Sakhalin scenario fits the uneven and dissonant pattern of relations between the two countries, as declaratory pledges and constructive intentions alternate with sporadic breaches of confidence. The obstacles at Sakhalin-2 are bound to further threaten ties between the neighbors. “For Japan, the general position is to find stability, and the confiscation of the Sakhalin-2 assets probably sets back relations between two countries,” said Gilbert Rozman, professor of sociology at Princeton University with a specialty in Northeast Asia, who has authored and edited a number of books on post-war Russian-Japanese relations.

Despite the immediacy of these recent incidents, the unresolved territorial dispute between the two countries continues to loom over any future developments. A result of late Soviet conquests in the Second World War and post-war geopolitics, the conflicting claims today are largely of symbolic import. To the extent that Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine could revive memories of Japanese atrocities and occupation in China and on the Korean peninsula, Russia’s possession of the southern Kuril Islands continues to stir uneasy memories in Japan.

“The only thing Japan cares about is pride, the settlement of the occupation, period.” Hasegawa said. “It insists on the islands’ return because it considers them illegally seized by the Soviet Union. So, it’s a psychological issue for Japan. Recovering the lost territories will put an end to this wartime period, and this view resonates with the Japanese people. Japan continues to hold unrealistic demands for the return of the islands, missing out on some opportunities to compromise.”

Hopes for a breakthrough surged early in the tenures of Putin and Koizumi, popular leaders with secure domestic coalitions and strong credentials abroad. Their inability to achieve meaningful progress highlighted a lack of focus in the bilateral agenda. “The two leaders had different priorities,” Rozman said. “Koizumi reversed his policy positions and did not make Russia a priority, shifting emphasis instead to nationalist causes. Putin chose to side more closely with China, further changing the balance in the relationship with Japan.”

Almost immediately after Abe’s cabinet met for the first time in late September, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso made a public statement that at least admitted the possibility of a compromise involving three of the islands, a proposed solution that has cropped up before. It soon became clear that Aso’s conciliatory tone did not mark an official shift in Japan’s policy, but was more a declaration of country’s willingness to consider different scenarios.

“We are ready to conclude a peace agreement when the Japanese side is ready,” said Andrei Krivtsov, deputy director of the Information Department of Russia’s Foreign Ministry. “But we are not speaking about compromises. We need to reach a settlement based on the recognition of existing realities.”

Signing a comprehensive peace treaty is impossible without agreeing to a territorial settlement, but the symbolic intensity of the issue has long outstripped its practical significance. “In a way, Japan doesn’t need the Northern Territories and that is why it is reluctant to compromise,” Hasegawa said. “There’s no practical reason to sign a peace treaty, no strong desire or will on either part to resolve the issue.”

“Japan’s outlying islands are already depopulated, so there’s a question of what it will cost to develop these new islands,” he added. “And what will it do with the Russians who live there now? As for Russia, it has the islands in its possession, and why should it return them? What will Russian gain? Perhaps it may be motivated by expecting a tremendous influx of Japanese investments in the Far East, but realistically Russian-Japanese economic relations aren’t likely to grow exponentially. The more Japan complains, the more Russia is tempted to exploit the situation.”

Russian experts point to the strategic importance of the islands for securing the Sea of Okhotsk. A major economic initiative unveiled by the Russian government in early August includes a plan to invest more than 17 billion rubles (over $600 million) to develop the Kuril Islands. In effect, the program boosts the government’s monthly spending to $1,000 per person on the islands, making it the best-funded Russian region. There could be no more emphatic sign of Russia’s intent to maintain its territorial hold with a view toward developing the economic future of the Kurils.

“For Russia, the islands carry a number of strategic interests, particularly in the military sphere,” said Pavlyatenko. “What greatly simplifies the situation is that the islands are in our possession, and therefore we don’t accord much importance to the dispute. Signing a ‘peace treaty’ would be anachronistic. There is no reason to create a precedent by returning to past circumstances. What we need is a broad-based treaty oriented toward the 21st century, which will lay the foundation and be the beacon for a future relationship.”

Although a set of territorial compromises with China in 2004 created a precedent for pursuing a similar idea with Japan, Pavlyatenko denies that such a model can be applied elsewhere. He criticizes the outsized public prominence given to the territorial dispute in Japan, blaming Japanese politicians for “deceiving their people.”

“Russia and China simply demarcated the existing territorial divide, while Japan doesn’t even recognize our border,” Pavlyatenko said. “We have one set of relations with China, and another with Japan. What we have been trying to achieve with Japan is an atmosphere for cooperation, which is absent right now, and they don’t seem to want to encourage it. Building a Toyota factory in St. Petersburg isn’t a contribution to better relations, it is simply a business project.”

Hasegawa said: “Abe will invite some resentment among his supporters if he moves toward Russia. At the same time, it would be easier for a nationalistic prime minister to make a deal with Russia, but only if he can muster enough strength at home. It all depends on the configuration of domestic forces. The territorial issue is likely to be pushed to the backburner unless this government becomes popular and assertive. Then everything is possible, especially if such an initiative coincides with Russia’s desire to capitalize on the opportunity.”

“An environment for creating a compromise solution is difficult to imagine now,” Rozman said. “While there is an in-between option to the territorial claims that provides a possible settlement, neither side is likely to consider it. Japan would be interested in resolving the situation, but it lacks a sense of how it could be done. Neither nation needs additional troubles, and other things of more immediate importance are likely to determine the future course of the relations.”

Sources and Contacts:

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Professor of Modern Russian and Soviet History, University of California, Santa Barbara, +1 (805) 893 2312

Gilbert Rozman, Professor of Sociology, Princeton University, +1 (609) 258 5094 and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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