Chapter 72 – Foreign Policy Problems – Russia


1. Northern Territories
2.The Two Island Demand
3. The Four Island Demand
4. A Possible Compromise
5. The Group of Four – 2000-2001
6. Foreign Ministry Mentality
7. Trade Frictions 
8. The Tanaka Makiko Committee

A major topic on the lecture circuit (and a topic where I could as a former diplomat claim some credential) was Japan’s foreign policies, Russia especially


Japanese audiences showed most interest when I turned to foreign policy questions, the Soviet Union/Russia especially.

It forced me to realise (more than many Western policy experts I suspect) how much of Japan’s prewar and wartime history had involved the Soviet Union.

We Westerners were unduly focussed on the Pacific war.

Many Westerners assume, for example, that Japan’s 1945 surrender was due to the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th of August 1945.

In fact, and as the historian Hasegawa Tsuyoshi argues in his book ‘Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan’, it was much more likely that Moscow’s declaration of war against Japan on August 8 diid more to persuade Japan’s leaders to surrender.

They could tolerate the loss of two or three more cities to nuclear weapons, especially since they could keep the news secret.

But a successful Soviet attack would mean the end of the emperor system, and that they could not tolerate. It could also mean a severe loss of territory, Hokkaido to begin with.

1. Northern Territories

With the war end it was no secret that most Japanese bitterly resented the way Moscow had for years held as labourers most of the Japanese solders they had captured in Manchuria in 1945.

(That the Japanese prisoners suffered a 10 percent death rate over ten years compared with the 50 percent rate for Chinese forced labourers in Japan over two years found little mention.)

With time the prisoners were gradually returned. That left the problem of former Japanese territory still being held by Moscow – the Kuriles islands and some small islands ( the Habomais and Shlkotan) close to the Hokkaido coast.

On paper Japan would seem to have had no claim to the Kuriles since Japan had specifically renounced all right and claim to this territory in its 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with the Allied powers.

But Tokyo had ways to get round this problem.

First it declared it should not have been forced to renounce the southern Kurile islands of Etorufu and Kunashiri since they had not be seized by Japan using violence and greed, and the 1943 (wartime) Cairo Declaration had said Japan should only lose territories it had gained through violence and greed.

Then it declared Etorufu and Kunashiri did not belong to the Kurile Islands it had renounced in 1951 anyway. They belonged to a new geographic entity called the Northern Territories, which also included the Habomais and Shikotan.

The implication: that Japan may have renounce all right to the Kuriles in 1951 but it hadn’t renounced its rights to the Northern Territories.

2. The Two Island Demand

In 1954 did Japan begin formally to make territorial demands – at first a demand Moscow should return the islands separate from the Kuriles and close to Hokkaido – the Habomais and Shikotan.

After a year of intense negotiations* Moscow finally accepted the argument and in 1955 promised their return when a Japan-USSR peace treaty was agreed upon.

*recorded in the little-known book by Matsumoto Shunichi, Moscow ni kakeru Niji (Rainbow over Moscow)

3. The Four Island Demand

But Tokyo then saw this Two Island concession as a chance to up its demand substantially – a tactic it has sometimes used in other negotiations.

It sees the initial concession by the other side as sign of the other side’s weakness, to be exploited.

In this case, as soon as Moscow said yes (in 1955) to the return of the Habomais and Shikotan, Tokyo immediately began also to demand the return of Etorufu and Kunashiri.

While these two islands were close to Japan (parts of Kunashiri were visible from Japan) they were parts of the Kuriles known as the Southern Kuriles, to which Japan had formally renounced all right, claim and priviledge at the 1951 San Francisco peace conference.

But according to Tokyo, they together with Shikotan and the Habomais, were part of a new geographical entity – the Northern Territories — which Japan had not renounced. Or if they had been renounced it was a mistake, or something….

This sudden four island claim to replace the original two island claim negotiated over in 1955 was not going to impress Moscow, who said no.

In the 1956 negotiations for a peace treaty and to open diplomatic relations, Tokyo again pressed the four island ‘Northern Territories’ claim. Again Moscow said no.

Two islands or nothing, it insisted. No peace treaty. Nothing.

Accepting that its claim to Etorofu and Kunashiri was weak, Tokyo’s 1956 negotiator, foreign minister, Shigemitsu Mamoru, suddenly decided to revert to the original claim for the Habomais and Shikotan only.

But reports of this backdown inflamed domestic rightwing opinion in Japan.

So Shigemitsu then revived the four island claim, saying the US had told him privately it would not see any need to return Okinawa if Japan backed down from the all four island demand.

(Or at least that is what he said the US had said.)

(One reliable US source says Shigemitsu, a weak negotiator, invented the US demand so he could about-face and avoid the nationalistic clamour that would erupt in Japan if he remained with the two island claim.)

(But most, including Wikipedia, seem to be unaware of this claim by the US source. They continue to believe Shigemitsu’s policy change was due to US threats over Okinawa, concrete evidence of which does not exist.)

In any case Moscow again said no.

And so it has remained ever since, with anyone in Japan who suggests any easing of the four island demand being denounced in Tokyo as a traitor to the nation – despite the shoddy way the demand was cobbled together.

Japan has gained absolutely nothing from this exercise of diplomatic duplicity except deadlocked relations with Moscow for over half century – Japan’s diplomacy at its self-destructive best.

Demands become set in emotional concrete with no space for compromise.

4. A Possible Compromise

To get round the deadlock, I had come up with a new approach in my lectures and writings.

I would say that Japan should forget about two islands or four islands claims; it should revert to its original demand for a return of all the Kurile Islands, and accept the four islands as a concession for dropping the all Kurile demand.

But in demanding all the Kuriles Tokyo would have to expose some of the US skullduggery before the 1951 San Francisco Peace treaty conference.

Why had Tokyo had been forced by the US to renounce all the Kuriles? There could have been an exception for the Southern Kuriles which Japan had not gained through ‘violence or greed,’ which were very close to Hokkaido, and which had been populated by Japanese citizens.

Prime Minister Yoshida’s San Francisco appeal for all the Kuriles included a special plea for the Southern Kuriles in particular. It reflected a genuine Japanese belief in their right to the islands.

Ignoring the original Ainu inhabitants, it could be said the Southern Kuriles (Etorufu and Kunashiri) had always been under Japanese control. They had been developed and inhabited by the Japanese.

It would have served the US interest to equivocate on this issue, claiming Moscow had already broken Yalta promises in Eastern Europe. And Japan therefore had a claim at least to the southern Kuriles.

But as in most foreign affairs the unusual can often be explained by the secret.

It was all because of a secret 1947 Moscow-US deal uncovered by Canadian researcher, Hara Kimie.

Under this deal, the UN Security Council would create a Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), including Tinian Island, within which the US would not only have administering authority but military rights also, in exchange for a firm promise the US would follow through on its February 1945 Yalta promise to have Japan renounce all the Kuriles to the USSR.

(The February 1945 promise is carved in stone in the Yalta Lividia gardens, as I found on a visit to the gardens in 2016.)

(Tinian was base for launching the 1945 atomic bomb attacks on Japan.)

This in turn explains the extraordinarily hard line Dulles took at San Francisco in forcing Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru to abandon his efforts for a wording that would not allow Japan in future to make a claim for control over all or part of the Kuriles – the southern Kuriles especially.

If Tokyo had disclosed all this background earlier on, maybe its negotiating position would have beenos stronger. Or at least it would have been in a stronger position with its claim for the Southern Kuriles.

But it did not. And since Tokyo persisted in its Southern Kuriles claim no agreement on a Peace Treaty could be reached.

Meanwhile Moscow was moving in the opposite direction, to a harder position.

In 1960 it pointed out an extra condition not clearly included in the 1956 Peace Treaty negotiations under which the return of the Habomais and Shikotan had been promised – namely, that Japan should not participate in any anti-Soviet military alliance.

But it was just doing just that in 1960 by reaffirming its security treaty with the US.

So Japan had already lost a claim to even the two islands?

Such is the price of Japan’s inconsistent diplomacy – or ‘waffling’ as Moscow’s Yeltsin later described it.

That an issue with such a murky background – the Japanese demand for all four islands in a situation where originally it thought it only had a basis to claim two islands and after 1960 even that basis of the two island claim was doubtful – could be presented as a clearcut case of Japanese virtue versus Moscow evil was alarming.

Yet the issue was being raised constantly by Tokyo, and in the media, both domestic and foreign, on the bland assumption that Japan’s case was 100 percent correct simply because in the past Japan had owned the two southern Kurile islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri (koyu no ryodo – traditional territory – was the claim).

The far more relevant fact that it had formally renounced ownership of those islands in 1951 was covered up by inventing a new piece of geography – the Northern Territories.

Germany had ceded to Poland large tracts of territory at war end which had been . But to date it has not used that argument to demand the land be returned.

In the face of such illogicality maybe it was not surprising if Moscow felt it had no choice but to continue to say nyet, I suggested.

To have agreed to the return of all four islands without good reason would have done serious precedent damage to its position in a number of other postwar territorial settlements.

But with my idea of blaming the loss of all the Kuriles, and not just the two southern Kuriles, on the US for having done its murky deal with Moscow to regain military use of other islands that had once been used for Japan’s atomic bombing – Tokyo could at least have had an arguable basis for its claim.

Whether Moscow would have agreed remained to be seen.

5. The Group of Four – 2000-2001

For a while I was marginally involved with a group of four appointed by former Prime Minister, Mori Yoshiro (2000-2001), to find a compromise agreement.

The Group’s proposal was something called Two Islands plus Alpha.

Japan would accept the return of the Habomais and Shikotan and in exchange for dropping its claim to the other two islands would seek some kind of plus Alpha (maybe the right to joint development of the other two islands).

Russian ambassador, Alexander Panov, was to be a key person in the group.

But with the change to Koizumi as prime minister in 2001, the foreign ministry hawks took control, again. All four territories or nothing, became Tokyo’s rigid position, again.

The Gaimusho hawks also moved rapidly to punish the three Japanese in the group of four, for attempted sabotage of established Japanese foreign policy.

Two Japanese in the group were denounced as traitors and found themselves under prosecution for whatever charges the hawks could drag out (one – a prominent Hokkaido politician, Suzuki Muneo, ended up in jail).

The other – Togo Kazuhiko, a former director-general of the Treaties Bureau at the Foreign Ministry – was banished to Norway

He later became Visiting Professor at Kyoto Sangyo university and prominent foreign affairs commentator careful not to stray too far from the official line.

Panov returned to Moscow. He said to me later that talking to Tokyo for territory solutions was a complete waste of time and he would never have anything more to do with it.

6. Foreign Ministry Mentality

It was hard to understand the Gaimusho thinking in all this.

Did they really believe that by continuing to refuse to have a serious economic and political relationship with Moscow – by refusing to sign a peace treaty with Moscow – Japan would somehow force the Soviets to say yes and hand over the two Southern Kuriles islands?

If so they failed completely to understand Soviet mentality.

Moscow had suffered so much from the war against the Axis powers. It was in no mood to sacrifice territory.

The Japanese also failed to understand another reason preventing Moscow from returning the island territory gained in 1945 – that it could serve as a precedent for giving up other war-gain territories, Kaliningrad for example.

For Japan flexibility in handling foreign policy problems was weak.

A Japanese prime minister, Abe Shinzo, later tried to use a soft approach to get some from of compromise. But it was too late.

Four islands or nothing had become carved in emotional stone – like those Lividia rocks.

One impetuous move by Japan’s hawks more than half a century earlier had forced Japan’s relations with Russia into permanent deadlock.

Maybe that was what the hawks wanted – more than the islands.

In the years since one or two brave souls – an NHK foreign policy commentator notably – had suggested some backdown from the four island demand.

In each case – the NHK commentator especially – they have been slapped down with the kind of brutality you expect in tight dictatorships, with not just retractions but apologies also demanded.

It is a surprising, and ugly, aspect of the way foreign policy commentary is controlled in Japan.

Surprisingly, however, many in my audiences seemed to accept what I had to say about US responsibility for Japan losing this territory (though often audiences will often seem to want to go along with you simply because they do not understand you or do not want to offend you).

As well, there was the fact of the anti-US rightwing (surprisingly vocal at times -Tokyo governor, Ishihara Shintaro, especially). They were glad to hear me blame the US for the problem.

In fact Ishihara once pulled me in to a 30 minute discussion on this and trade problems for a radio channel he controlled.

7. Trade Frictions

On trade questions – the other hot topic – I would say Japan should be more assertive in blaming mistaken US policies for the imbalances.

But it should also do something about the weak domestic demand that was harming its economy and forcing expanded exports.

That too got a reasonable response, as did articles along the same line.

8. The Tanaka Makiko Committee

With Koizumi as prime minister in 2001, Tanaka Makiko (daughter of Tanaka Kakuei), was made foreign minister.

She was supposed to be a foreign policy dove, but one of her first moves was to confirm the four island demand and condemn the Group of Four attempt to find a compromise.

She then set up a personal advisory committee of foreign policy moderates (women mainly), with myself included.

Also included as observer was Yachi Shotaro, a Gaimusho policy brain, sometimes regarded as Japan’s Foreign Ministry Kissinger, to act as liaison with the Ministry and perhaps restrain us if we got too far off the rails.

For me, as a public critic of Japan’s rightwing foreign policies, it was a strange feeling walking the ministry corridors to get to committee meetings.

But Makiko seemed to remember my role supporting her father’s often controversial infrastructure and China policies.

At the height of the Gaimusho witch hunt against the three ‘traitors’ (which she supported strongly) I got to suggest she should study the territory question more closely. She might discover Japan’s position was not as strong as claimed.

She came back to me quickly. In 1973 her father, Tanaka Kakuei, had on a Moscow visit set out clearly Japan’s four island position to the Soviet leadership.

In response Brezhnev had said Ya znaiyu (I know it).

This meant he accepted the Japanese position, she said.

End of problem.

Years later the opening of British diplomatic records revealed the British ambassador to Moscow at the time had reported that the Japanese switch from a two island demand to a four island demand was a rather bizarre move.

‘Curious and naive’ were his words, as I recall.

But that did not stop the UK and everyone else in the West from fully supporting Tokyo’s four island demand position in 1956 and later.

Such is the way foreign policies, and wars, are made.