Chapter 72 – Foreign Policy Problems – Russia


Taking Risks on the Lecture Circuit

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

Meanwhile the lecture circuit continued, with me continuing to criticise Japanese foreign policies.

As an educationalist in Japan it was a risky thing to be doing; the rightwing was always on the lookout for alleged progressives to attack. Now with the international situation turning tense it was even more risky. 

But someone had to do it.


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

It forced me to realise 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.

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

They could afford to lose a few cities to nuclear weapons, especially since they could keep the news secret.

But they could not afford to lose one emperor.  A successful Soviet attack would mean the end of the emperor system Japan had revered and protected down the ages. It could also mean the indignity of a full or partial Soviet occupation of Japan’s sacred territory.

Japan’s long-suppressed communists would also have to be freed from jail and might seek revenge,

The Secret Harbin Messages.  Australia can contribute something to this debate since it was to receive to receive messages coming into the Japanese office in Harbin for transfer to Japanese authorities in Tokyongiving information received by the Canberra embassy about US plans for the attack on Japan (then in progress).

Why was Moscow helping Japan in this way?

To delay the Allied victorv over Japan and so give more time for a Soviet victory to be imposed.

1. Northern Territories

Japan bitterly resented the way Moscow had for years held as labourers most of the Japanese solders they had captured in Manchuria in 1945.

(That those 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 some former Japanese territory still being held by Moscow – the Kuriles islands and some small islands (the Habomais and Shlkotan) close to the Hokkaido coast.

They were to be called the Northern Territories and were to plague Japan-Moscow relations for almost a century.

At times I became peripherally involved.

The Kuriles 

When Japan went  into the 1951 peace talks with the Allied powers its prime minister, Yoshida Shigeru, made a strong demand for the return of the Kurile Islands that Japan had lost to the US in 1945 in the final days of the war.

The demand had already been rejected in the San Francisco Peace Treaty with the Allied powers in which Japan specifically renounced ‘all right and claim to ‘the Kurile Islands’ 

The wording was clear and unambiguous.  But Tokyo seemed to believe it had a strong claim. And some of its reasons remain undisclosed.

The Two Island Demand

It was in 1954 that Japan begin formally to make territorial demands. 

First up was the demand Moscow should return the islands separate from the Kuriles and close to Hokkaido – the Habomais and Shikotan.

Here Japan would argue that historically these islands had always belonged to Japan (in fact they had belonged to the Ainu people who had been dispossessed by Japanese settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries.)

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

While the islands were puny in size and the expulsion of the habitants had been arbitrary the Soviet concession over the two islands was notable.  It was very rare for Moscow to agree to the return of terrirory it had gained in World War Two.  Precedents were involved, I used to say.

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

3. The Four Island Demand

But 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 Etorofu and Kunashiri in the Kurile island chain.

These two islands, while close to Japan (parts of Kunashiri were visible from Hokkaido),  clearly were parts of the Kuriles (known as the Southern Kuriles) to which Japan had formally renounced all right, claim and privilege at the 1951 San Francisco peace conference.

According to Tokyo, however, the two Southern Kuriles islands, together with Shikotan and the Habomais, were part of that new geographical entity. It was to be called the Northern Territories — territories always separate from the Kuriles and which Japan had not renounced in 1951.

However, this sudden four island claim to replace the original two island claim negotiated in 1955 was not going to impress Moscow.  It came back quickly with a reply saying  – nyet, or no. 

And the UK embassy in Tokyo correctly said the move was both ‘curious and naive’ (according to embassy documents released postwar).

1956 Peace Treaty Negotiations

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

Two islands or nothing, it insisted. 

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 rapidly 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 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 at a later stage 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 at least have been an exception for the Southern Kuriles which Japan had not gained through ‘violence or greed,’ and 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 also have served the US interest to equivocate on this issue, claiming Moscow had already broken Yalta promises in Eastern Europe and that this allowed Japan to make a claim at least to the southern Kuriles.

Secret Dealings

But as in most foreign affairs the unusual can often be explained by the secret. A secret 1947 Moscow-US deal uncovered by Canadian researcher, Hara Kimie, could be a basis for Tokyo to make a claim that the 1951 Peace Conference demand Japan should give up the Kuriles was compromised, 

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. 

 All this would be in exchange for a firm promise that at the forthcoming Peace Conference with Japan the US would follow through on its February 1945 Yalta promise to have Moscow 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 secret deal  in turn could explain the extraordinarily hard line Dulles took at the 1951 San Francisco in forcing Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru to abandon his efforts for a wording that would 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 legal position over the Kuriles would have been stronger (the concept of weak or no legality for treaties negotiated under force does exist). 

And having staked out a legal position for a claim to all the Kuriles it could, by making the concession of giving up its claim to the Northern Kuriles. have been been able to negotiate a legal position for its claim for the Southern Kuriles.

But it did not. And since Tokyo persisted in its Southern Kuriles claim without even the pretence of a legal basis for annulling all or some part of the 1951agreement over the Kuriles, no agreement for Japan 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 allegedly included in the 1956 Peace Treaty negotiations with Japan 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 doing just that in 1960 by reaffirming its security treaty with the US.

So Japan had ipso facto lost its claim to even the two islands,

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

Tokyo Logic

That an issue with such a murky background  could be presented as a clearcut case of Japanese virtue versus Moscow evil, with no attempt to stake out a middle position,  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).

If the principle that traditional territory should be returned just because it was traditional territory then the entire map of Europe would have to be redrawn. 

Germany had ceded to Poland large tracts of its traditional territory at war end and has accepted that it must be reconciled to this loss as part of the price it must pay for waging aggressive war. 

To date it has not even hinted it could use the ‘traditional territory’ 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 two islands of Etorufu and Kunashiri it would seek some kind of plus Alpha (maybe the right to joint development of those 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, for attempted sabotage of established Japanese foreign policy.

They were denounced as traitors to the nation, and two found themselves under prosecution for whatever charges the hawks could drag out (one – a prominent Hokkaido politician, Suzuki Muneo – ended up in jail; legal arguments on the other are continuing).

The one not subject to prosecution -Togo Kazuhiko, a former director-general of the Treaties Bureau at the Foreign Ministry – was banished as ambassador to Norway

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

Panov returned to Moscow. When I met him he told me that talking to Tokyo about 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 greatly from the war against the Axis powers. It was in no mood to sacrifice territory without reason.

In addition to the legal problem, Tokyo also failed to understand another reason preventing Moscow from returning the island territory gained in 1945, namely that it could serve as a precedent for giving up other war-gained territories, Kaliningrad for example.

Japan’s 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.

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

Maybe permanent deadlock 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 a tight communist dictatorship, with not just retractions but apologies also demanded and career endings threatened.  

It was 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 provided I emphasised 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 that many in the rightwing (surprisingly including the anti-US at times Tokyo governor, Ishihara Shintaro,) were also glad to hear me blame the US for the problem.

In fact Ishihara once pulled me in to a 30 minute one-on-one anti-US discussion on territory and trade problems on 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 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 I once loathed 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 Japanese ‘traitors’ in the Group of Four (a witch hunt 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 during 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, at least for someone with no idea how a Soviet leader might respond to a Tanaka-style question.


Years later with the opening of British diplomatic records that ‘curious and naive’ remark was revealed.

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.