Can Russia and Japan put an end to the Kuril Islands dispute?

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Can Russia and Japan put an end to the Kuril Islands dispute?

After more than 70 years, Japan and Russia are closing in on a peace treaty. Japan Prime-Minister Shinzo Abe recently said that they are in talks with Russia to sign the peace treaty

After more than 70 years, Japan and Russia are closing in on a peace treaty. Japan Prime-Minister Shinzo Abe recently said that they are in talks with Russia to sign the peace treaty. He cited his close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin as one of the main reasons why they might be able to strike a deal soon.

Background of the dispute

In 1855, Japan and Russia signed the Treaty of Shimoda, which was the first agreement dealing with the status of the Kuril Islands. According to Article 2 of the treaty, the Kuril Islands belong to Russia. In 1875, the two countries signed another deal, thee Treaty of Saint Petersburg. Essentially, Japan agreed to give up the rights to Sakhalin in exchange for the rights of Kuril Islands. But a controversy remains due to the translation discrepancies of the French official text.


In the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and 1905, Japan managed to conquer the southern half of Sakhalin Islands. And during the Russian Civil War, Japan occupied even more parts of Russia’s Far East. They did not formally annex any of the territories, but, they were vacated by Japan in the mid 1920s.

After World War II, Japan announced unconditional capitulation, and signed and accepted the Potsdam Declaration. This allowed Russia to occupy the Kuril Islands. The operation to occupy the islands took place between August 18 and September 3, 1945. Japanese inhabitants were repatriated two years later.

The Cold War

A separate document during the Yalta Conference in 1945, decided the fate of the Far East. At that time, the position of the United States was that they wanted Russia to be part of the Pacific War with the allied forces. So, during the Yalta Conference, the Soviet Union received the Kuril Islands and the southern Sakhalin, more than it lost in the Russian – Japanese war.

In the 1950s, Cold War had a huge impact on the dispute between Russia and Japan. In 1951, the Soviet Union and the United States prepared the San Francisco treaty, which was supposed to be a permanent peace treaty between Japan and the Allied Powers of World War II. Due to the Cold War implications, the position of the United States changed dramatically. America thought that the Soviet Union violated several provisions of the Yalta agreement. The Soviet Union disagreed. The big disagreement was the draft text of the treaty. It stated that “Japan will renounce all rights to Southern Sakhalin and the Kuril islands”, but it did not state explicitly that “Japan would recognize the Soviet Union’s sovereignty over these territories”.

In 1956, there were talks between Japan and the Soviet Union regarding a peace treaty. The Soviet side proposed to return Shikotan and Habomai to Japan, and Japan accepted. However, the US government intervened and blocked the deal.

21st century talks

Since the Cold War and talks in the 1950s, there were not many attempts at resolving the issue up until 2000s. In 2005, the European Parliament issued an official statement recommending the return of the territories in dispute. Of course, Russia protested. In 2006, Vladimir Putin, again proposed to return Shikotan and the Habomais, which is only 6% of the disputed area to Japan. The condition was that Japan would renounce its claims to the other two islands. This was the exact same proposal as of 1956. Japan did not agree.



In 2008, there was another attempt to resolve the issue, but it was stopped in July the same year. The Japanese government published new school textbook guidelines directing teachers to say that Japan has sovereignty over the Southern Kuril Islands. Russia protested, and the talks stopped. There were other attempts, including the meeting between Medvedev and Japanese prime minister at the time Taro Aso in Sakhalin in February 2009. But they did not come close to a deal.

On its side, Russia has given several concessions to Japan in the dispute, including introducing visa-free trips for Japanese citizens to the Kuril Islands, and allowing Japan’s fishermen to catch fish in Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

Will Japan get its territories back?

Now that Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin are trying again to resolve the issue, a question is whether Japan would manage to get some of the territory back? But the Russian side is determined not to let that happen. Answering to questions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told recently “Certainly not”, when asked “Can you that this means an automatic return of some categories”.

With that in mind, it is clear that Moscow will not relinquish the territories that easily. It remains to be seen what can Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe do to resolve an issue that is 70 years old.

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