With Abe gone, Japan-Russia in a new deep freeze

Territorial dispute blocks contacts that could have vitalized economies of Hokkaido and the Russian Far East

For almost 60 years, Moscow’s large embassy near central Tokyo has been under siege.

Tokyo demands the return of some islands it lost to Moscow at the end of the war. In support of that demand, large trucks carrying World War Two uniformed ultra-rightists blast out old war songs.

Abusive slogans demanding the return of the islands are megaphoned into the Embassy grounds. Dozens of riot police in gas-belching buses surround the premises. 

It is a territorial dispute that has blocked the economic and personal contacts that could have done much to vitalize the economies of both Hokkaido and the Russian Far East.  

Tokyo’s first move to recover territories that it had lost as a result of its Pacific War was a modest 1952 claim to Shikotan island and the Habomai islands, lying just off the coast of Hokkaido. Total area: 365 square kilometers.   

After a year of difficult negotiations Moscow agreed to return those islands to Japan – but only following the conclusion of a peace treaty between the two countries.

With Shikotan and the Habomais seemingly out of the way, Tokyo began to demand the return of the Southern Kurile islands, Kunashiri and Etorofu, also near Hokkaido. 

But this time Moscow had no trouble saying nyet.

At the February-March 1945 Yalta Conference to decide the future of postwar Japan, the US, the USSR and the UK had agreed Moscow could have the Kurile (Chishima) Islands if it promised to attack Japan once it had defeated Nazi Germany. Moscow had done as promised.

So Clause 2c of the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty with the Allies states unambiguously that “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Kurile Islands.”

But Tokyo had a neat way around that problem. It created a new geographic unit called “the Northern Territories,” comprising Shikotan, the Habomais, Etorofu and Kunashiri.   

So on paper in demanding the return of Etorofu and Kunashiri Tokyo was not demanding the islands it had renounced. It was demanding islands that had never been part of the Kuriles. 

They had always been part of the ‘Northern Territories’ – a piece of geographic sleight of hand yet to be caught up with by the mapmakers, who continue to call them the Southern Kuriles.

Even the UK and France, both involved in the original San Francisco 1951 peace treaty talks with Japan, were unimpressed by that Northern Territories move.

“Curious and naive” were the words of the UK ambassador to Japan in a now-revealed message to London at the time.  

Undeterred, Tokyo repeated the Etorufu-Kunashiri claim at the 1956 talks that were supposed to settle once and for all the terms of the peace treaty between Japan and the USSR. (Moscow was absent from the 1951 peace treaty.) 

But once again Moscow said no. And once again Japan insisted: No peace treaty with Moscow unless Etorofu and Kunashiri were returned.   

And so the siege of the Soviet (now Russian) Tokyo embassy was started and has continued.

Over the years, Moscow has sent some impressive diplomatic talent into its embattled Tokyo embassy in a bid to resolve the issue.

During the administration of prime minister Yoshiro Mori (2000-2001), senior Russian diplomat and Japan expert Alexander Panov joined three influential Japanese officials in Tokyo in a bid to find a compromise.

The “two islands [Shikotan and the Habomais] plus Alpha” was their provisional compromise, with Alpha being some form of undefined joint development on the disputed islands.

But that did not promise Japanese sovereignty over Etorofu and Kunashiri as demanded by Japanese rightists.  

So with the fall of Mori, Foreign Ministry hawks quickly moved in to kill the talks.

The three Japanese compromising cooperators were accused of being traitors to the nation. One ended up in jail, another under threat of jail. The third was banished to a distant diplomatic posting.

Panov returned to a senior post in Moscow. When I met him there soon after, he just said bluntly that no solution to the dispute was possible.   

But for a while there did seem some chance of a breakthrough – when prime minister Shinzo Abe decided good relations with Moscow were crucial for isolating Beijing. 

He sought repeated meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the talks never got beyond details like visa-free visits to the four islands by former residents (now very old) and joint development projects. 

As a G7 member in 2014, the year of the first Russo-Ukrainian war, Japan had felt obliged to go along with the first call for sanctions on Russia. But it did so slowly and reluctantly, signaling that Abe still had hopes.

But all that ended with the 2022 Russian attack on Ukraine and Abe’s assassination soon after. Bilateral relations are now in deep freeze.

Rising territorial nationalism in Russia is a related problem. In July 2020, the Russian constitution was revised to deny actions “directed toward the alienation of any part of the territory of the Russian Federation.”

And from time to time the ominous 1960 statement by then-Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko is revived.

Gromyko warned that a condition for the 1956 promise to return territory to Japan after a peace treaty was that Japan refrain from joining any military alliance directed against the USSR. In 1960, Japan renewed its military alliance with the US.

The current Russian ambassador in Tokyo, Mikhail Galuzin, a fluent Japanese speaker now on his fourth posting to Tokyo, has inherited the deep freeze. However, in his talks to foreign affairs groups, he has tried to remain optimistic.

The signing of a peace treaty on the basis of the 1956 declaration should pave the way to a higher level of relations he insists.

As for the Gromyko threat, the current US-NATO policy of encirclement of Russia can be carried out no matter where US troops are located. 

For the moment, though, everything is on freeze. The conditions for Putin-Abe-style talks do not exist.