Japan-Russia Relationship Is US-Russia Relationship

The reason why Japan and Russia have not settled the territorial dispute is Washington’s influence over Tokyo through the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement.

Northern Territorial Day

February 7th is Northern Territorial Day in Japan.

There has been a territorial dispute between Japan and Russia over the Northern Territories. Thus, the day has been established to deepen the “Japanese’s understanding and interest in the Northern Territories, which have been under the control of Russia effectively, and to promote the return campaign.”

Japan’s Northern Territories consist of four islands: Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai.

Red is Etorofu Island, Blue is Kunashiri Island, Light Green is Shikotan Island, Light Blue is Habomai Islands, and Brown is Hokkaido, Japan.

Blue is Russia, Red is Japan, and surrounded by Green lines is the Northern Territories.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa marked this year’s Northern Territories Day by explaining the islands are inherent territories of Japan, and the Russian occupation of the Northern Territories has no legal basis.

She emphasized that the Japanese government would adhere to the policy to settle the territorial dispute and then conclude a peace treaty with Russia.

On January 30th, Russian Deputy Chair of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, claimed on X, formerly Twitter, that the Northern Territories belong to Russia. From Moscow’s perspective, the Northern Territories are a part of the Russian Kuril Islands chain. This post responded to Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s policy speech.

Medvedev offered conditions for a peace treaty, “1. The “territorial question” is closed once and for all in accordance with the Constitution of Russia; 2. The Kuril islands will be actively developing, and their strategic role will be growing in parallel, including stationing new weapons there.”

History of Northern Territories

Japan and the Soviet Union signed the joint declaration in 1956 aim at normalizing ties.

In Article 9 of this declaration, they reached an agreement that the Soviet Union would hand over two of four of the islands of the Northern Territories, the Habomai Island and the Shikotan Island, to Japan after Tokyo and Moscow concluded a peace treaty.

After that, they continued negotiations but haven’t settled the dispute yet.

In 2018, it appeared that there was progress. Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech about his eagerness for the conclusion of a peace treaty at the Eastern Economic Forum on September 12th.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded, “We have been in talks for 70 years. Shinzo suggested changing approaches. Therefore, it has dawned on me that we should sign a peace treaty, not now, but before the year is out, and without any preconditions.”

Two months later, on November 14th, 2018, Abe and Putin held talks, and each of Abe, Japan’s foreign ministry, and the Russian president’s office announced that Japan and Russia reached an agreement to accelerate negotiation on a peace treaty based on 1956’s joint declaration.

Putin also said, “We launched or resumed, to be more exact, our dialogue with Japanese partners precisely on the basis of the 1956 declaration, and this is what our Japanese partners asked us to do.”

However, somehow, they were not able to make significant progress. And Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. The Japanese government imposed severe sanctions against Russia. Therefore, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on March 21st, 2022, that it intended to stop the peace treaty negotiation, including the Northern Territory dispute.

“Under the current conditions, the Russian Federation does not intend to continue peace treaty talks with Japan,” the Kremlin explained. “Because it is impossible to discuss this fundamental document on bilateral relations with a state that holds an explicitly unfriendly position and seeks to harm the interests of our country.”

The Kremlin also says there reasons are Russia’s security concerns in the Northern Territories.

“Security matters are very important, and we discuss them, including from the perspective that you have mentioned,” At the Eastern Economic Forum in 2018, Putin said. “Of course, there are many aspects related to military cooperation in the region that are a matter of concern for us, including the deployment of U.S. missile defence systems.”

It was a security concern that if Russia returned (transferred) the Northern Territories to Japan, the U.S. would locate its military base on the islands. Putin has expressed this concern many times.

On June 4th, 2021, he pointed out that the deployment of missiles in Japan’s territory, the U.S. planned, could threaten Russia and that Japan hadn’t explained how to solve the problem.

Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement

In the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, signed in 1960, the location of US bases in Japan is not explicitly stated.

“The United States is granted, under Article VI of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the use of facilities and areas in Japan.” Article 2, paragraph 1 continues,  “Agreements as to specific facilities and areas shall be concluded by the two Governments through the Joint Committee provided for in Article XXV of this Agreement.”

Professor Shinji Kawana, Tokyo Institute of Technology, said in his book titled “Why the U.S. Bases Have to be Set up in Okinawa?” that Japan’s Foreign Ministry made a classified document called “Methods of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement Enlarged Edition” explained how to interpret it.

Kawana writes,

“The U.S. is permitted the right to require provisions of facilities and areas, wherever in territories under Japanese administration, the document reads. Of course, there is no obligation for Japan to comply with all the requirements. However, the people concerned should understand that judgment connected with the Japan-U.S. relationship is based on the assumption that there is a consensus. Thus, there is an assumption that if the U.S. judges a base to be needed and requires, Japan will also consider the base to be needed.”

Therefore, if Russia returns (or transfers) the Northern Territories to Japan, in order to guarantee that the U.S. military will not deploy in the islands, consultation and agreement are essential not only between Japan and Russia but also between Japan and the U.S. what is more between Russia and The U.S.

Dulles’s Intimidation

However, the reason why Japan has not compromised on the return of two of the four islands, but has required the return of all four islands, is pressure from the U.S.

In August 1956, then-Secretary of State of the U.S., John Dulles threatened Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, that ” If you give the Kunashiri and the Etorofu to the Soviet Union, the U.S. will claim Okinawa permanently.” This affair is known as ” Dulles’s Intimidation.”

It is said that the same pressure existed in 1955.

On February 7th, 2022, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Emanuel Rahm, addressed the Japanese by video. He said, “The United States supports Japan on the issue of the Northern Territories and has recognized Japanese sovereignty over the four disputed islands since the 1950s.”

Although it has been 68 years since Japan and the Soviet Union declared their intention to settle the territorial dispute, the U.S. has been standing in the way. Is Japan a sovereign state?

Reiho Takeuchi is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on Japan and its surrounding, related regions. One of his hopes is to provide the world with the chance to know about modern colonialism through Japan’s situation. He writes on substack.