On April 22, Japan’s latest Diplomatic Bluebook, an annual diplomatic report published by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), was reported to a cabinet meeting of the Kishida administration. Based on the contents, four points are worth emphasizing with regards to Japan-Russia relations after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine War. First, the report officially criticized Russia’s military operations against Ukraine, stating that “Russia’s ongoing military invasion of Ukraine has brutally undermined the foundation of an international order built over the past 100 years.” Second, the report describes the Northern Islands as Japan’s “inherent territory” for the first time in 11 years. Third, the report mentioned for the first time in 19 years that the Northern Territories have “illegally been occupied” by Russia. Fourth, the report argues that Japan is currently in no position to resume diplomatic negotiations toward a Japan-Russia peace treaty under.
This year’s Diplomatic Bluebook was thoroughly revised after the outbreak of the war, and it shows that Japan has readopted a “hardline stance” on the territorial dispute with Russia. Does this mean Japan has given up on a peace treaty with Russia?
For over six decades, Japan and Russia have negotiated to resolve a bilateral territorial dispute regarding four islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuril Islands in Russia. The four islands – Etorofu/Iturup; Kunashiri/Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai – used to be under the control of the Japanese government until the Soviet Union occupied them at the end of World War II.
The history of Japan-Russia bilateral border discussions dates back to the 1855 Shimoda Treaty. On February 7, 1855, the Empire of Japan and the Russian Empire signed the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation between Japan and Russia in Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture. It was the first diplomatic trade treaty between the two countries. Through the Shimoda Treaty, Japan opened the ports of Nagasaki, Shimoda, and Hakodate to Russian vessels for the purpose of bilateral commercial exchanges. Significantly, the border between Japan and Russia was officially established on the line between Etorofu and Urup, whereas it was decided that Sakhalin (Karafuto) would remain “unpartitioned” in Article 2 of the Treaty.
In order to resolve the sovereignty of Sakhalin, the Empire of Japan and the Russian Empire signed the Treaty of Saint Petersburg on May 7, 1875. In the treaty, Russia obtained Sakhalin in exchange for the Kuril Islands. The St. Petersburg Treaty remained in force until the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed in 1905 as a result of the Russo-Japanese War. Under the Portsmouth Treaty, Russia ceded the southern part of Sakhalin and the entire part of the Kuril Islands.
During World War II, Japan and the Soviet Union signed the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact on April 13, 1941 to guarantee bilateral neutrality and non-aggression during the war.
On December 1, 1943, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the Cairo Declaration, which agreed upon military operations against Japan. The declaration stipulated that the alliance would fight a war “to restrain and punish the aggression of Japan” and that “Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.”
In the Yalta Conference of February 4-11, 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin discussed the post-war reorganization of Europe as well as an agreement regarding Japanese territories. In the conference, it was agreed that “the Soviet Union shall enter into war against Japan” on condition that “the southern part of Sakhalin as well as the islands adjacent to it shall be returned to the Soviet Union” and that “the Kuril Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union.”
After the end of World War II, Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty on September 8, 1951. Article 2 (c) of the treaty stipulated that: “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands, and to that portion of Sakhalin and the islands adjacent to it over which Japan acquired sovereignty as a consequence of the Treaty of Portsmouth.” It is questionable whether the islands adjacent to Sakhalin indicate the four islands in dispute, however, because they had been already part of Japan’s territory before the Russo-Japanese War and the conclusion of the Portsmouth Treaty. Either way, there is no description of the four islands, and the San Francisco Peace Treaty, therefore, obfuscated the territorial sovereignty of the disputed islands.
On October 19, 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a Joint Declaration in order to terminate the state of war between them and normalize their bilateral diplomatic and trade relationship. Although it was not a formal peace treaty, the “peace declaration” was regarded as a formal trade protocol and a foundation for the future peace treaty. Importantly, the Joint Declaration stipulated future possibility of resolving the bilateral territorial disputes through the conclusion of a peace treaty. Article 9 of the Joint Declaration stated that the Soviet Union “agrees to transfer to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan, [with] the actual transfer of these islands to Japan to take place after the conclusion of a Peace Treaty.” Based on the Joint Declaration, the Japanese government patiently continued negotiations toward a bilateral peace treaty until 2014.
In retrospect, the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 temporarily paralyzed the bilateral negotiations for a peace treaty. In response to the Crimean crisis, the Japanese government denounced Russia for infringing on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and strongly urged Russia to observe international law and to refrain from annexing Crimea. As measures against the annexation of Crimea, Japan decided to suspend “consultation for easing visa regulations” and freeze “negotiations of a new investment agreement.”
On October 17, 2014, then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President Vladimir Putin held a summit meeting on the occasion of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) 10 Summit Meeting in Milan, Italy. In the meeting, Abe told Putin that Japan expected Russia to ensure the “full implementation of the ceasefire agreement” in Ukraine. On November 9, 2014, Abe and Putin agreed to resume the bilateral negotiations for a peace treaty in a summit meeting on the occasion of APEC in Beijing.
Notably, then-Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio – now Japan’s prime minister – held a ministerial meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on September 21, 2015. Kishida explained Japan’s position on the disputed islands to Lavrov. Although the bilateral negotiations for a peace treaty had been halted, the diplomatic consultations were resumed by Kishida’s visit.
It is a natural reaction by the Japanese government to revise its annual diplomatic report after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, but the diplomatic channels for future negotiations toward a Japan-Russia peace treaty should not be shut down so that the future Japanese government can restart the peace treaty negotiations and pursue its long-cherished diplomatic goal, namely the return of the Northern Territories.