Kuril Islands Dispute – Leftover Conflict from World War II

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Kuril Islands Dispute – Leftover Conflict from World War II

The Kuril Islands are officially a Russian-controlled group of islands off the northern coast of Japan. Though, Japan also lays claim over them. In Japan, they are known as the Northern territories

World War II officially ended on September 2, when US General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the US Battleship Missouri. But unofficially? There are still leftover conflicts from the gruesome war.
For example, a little known fact is that the Kuril Islands are still a matter of dispute between Russia and Japan, two countries on the opposite side during World War II.
The Kuril Islands are officially a Russian-controlled group of islands off the northern coast of Japan. Though, Japan also lays claim over them. In Japan, they are known as the Northern territories.
The Kuril Islands were occupied during the Second World War. They were originally inhabited by the Ainu people, but they were eventually displaced by Japanese settlers.
Red Army forces occupied it in the last stages of the war in 1945, and expelled all of its Japanese inhabitants in 1946.
Because of the Kuril Islands dispute, Japan and Russia still have not signed an official peace treaty, meaning that World War II is still ongoing between these two countries.

What are the Kuril Islands?

The Kuril Islands present a territorial dispute between Japan and the Russian Federation. They are a chain of islands stretching between the Japanese island of Hokkaido at their southern end and the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula at their northern end.


They separate the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. There are four disputed islands in total. The other islands that are not in the dispute, were annexed by the Soviet Union following the Kuril Islands landing operation at the end of WWII. Russian administration governs the Islands, with Japan claiming them, referring to them as its Northern territories.
The four islands are:
- Iturup in Russian, and Etorofu Island in Japanese
- Kunashir in Russian, Kunashiri Island in Japanese
- Shikotan in Russian, Shikotan Island in Japanese
- Habomai Islands

Why are Kuril Islands so important?

Why Russia and Japan haven’t signed peace treaty over these islands for so many years? Well, because they are quite important. The last time leaders of both sides met was on May 5 in 2016 in Moscow, when Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin focused on the current state and the prospects of development of bilateral cooperation in trade and economy.
According to Japanese online resources, the military infrastructure of the Kuril Islands can be part of a future plan of North Sea Route, which is a route between the Kara Sea in the Arctic and the Pacific Ocean.
Russia might use this path to strengthen its power in the Pacific Ocean, something that has been weakened in the last several decades.


The archipelago is quite important for Russia’s defences because it gives the Pacific Fleet access to the Pacific Ocean. The island chain is in a strategic region close to both Japan and Russian territories. With Russian governance of the islands, the Russian Federation sees them as an effective and crucial measure in keeping US power in the Pacific in check.
Truth be told, news about the Kuril Islands rarely appear on national news in Russia. But they are a hot topic in Japan.
But Japan’s interest is more about passion surrounding the return of the islands and nationalistic sentiments. There are graves of Japanese people who lived there before the defeat in World War II. That fact alone is quite important to Japanese society, one in which culture of ancestral preservation and memory is strong.
Japan even has a mourning Day of the Northern Territories on February 7th. Japanese maps list the lands as Japanese territory.

Background of the Dispute

The first deal that focused on the status of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands was signed in 1855, the treaty of Shimoda. That was the first one that established relations between the Russian Empire and Tokugawa Japan.
In that treaty, the island of Iturup belongs to Japan and the island of Urup belongs to Russisa. The border between the two countries will pass between those two islands.
Then, in 1875, Russia and Japan signed the Treaty of Saint Petersburg, agreeing that Japan would give up all rights to Sakhalin in exchange for Russia giving up rights to the Kuril Islands. But due to translation discrepancies of the French official text, controversy remains as to what constitutes the Kuril Islands.
Then, the Russian-Japanese war from 1904 to 1905 presented a military disaster to Russia. The country signed the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, giving the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan.
Then, Japan occupied parts of Russia’s far east following the Russian Civil War and October Revolution. But they did not formally annex any of the territories they got in the mid 1920s.
During World War II, Japan sided with Nazi Germany, while the USSR declared war on Japan following the Japanese-Soviet Border War in 1939.


Following the surrender of Nazi Germany in WWII, the Soviet started hostilities against Japan, as per the Yalta Agreement. On August 9, 1945, they invaded Manchuria and declared war on Japan, and invaded South Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands in the next few days.
Invasion of Kuril Islands took place between August 18 and September 3. Japan, announced its surrender on August 15 and formally signed it on September 2. Japanese inhabitants of Kuril Islands were expelled two years later.

What did Japan and Russia agreed after World War II

The Kuril Islands Dispute is an aftermath of the Yalta Agreement, signed in February 1945, Potsdam Declaration in July 1945, and the Treaty of San Francisco in September 1951. There are disagreements about the meaning of these agreements. The Yalta one, signed by the US, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, stated:
“The leaders of the three great powers – the Soviet Union, the United States of America and Great Britain – have agreed that in two or three months after Germany has surrendered and the war in Europe is terminated, the Soviet Union shall enter into war against Japan on the side of the Allies on condition that: ... 2. The former rights of Russia violated by the treacherous attack of Japan in 1904 shall be restored, viz.: (a) The southern part of Sakhalin as well as the islands adjacent to it shall be returned to the Soviet Union; ... 3. The Kuril islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union”
Japan and US claim that the Yalta Agreement did not apply to the Northern territories because they were not part of the Kuril Islands. Yet, US geographers have traditionally listed them as part of the Kuril chain.


In San Francisco in 1951, the US and the Soviet Union prepared a new treaty. By that time, the Cold War had already taken hold, and the US changed its position regarding Yalta and Potsdam agreements. For starters, the US agreed that the Soviet violated several provisions of the Yalta agreement in relation to the rights of other countries.
The Soviets disagreed and demanded that the US adhere to its promises made as a condition of the Soviet’s entry into the war with Japan.
The main sentence in dispute is, “Japan will renounce all rights to Southern Sakhalin and the Kuril islands, did not state explicitly that Japan would recognize the Soviet Union's sovereignty over these territories”.
In the treaty of San Francisco, it states, “Japan renounces all right, title, and claim to the Kurile 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 Potsdam of 5 September 1905”.
The Soviets refused to sign the treaty and publicly stated that the Kuril Islands were the main reason for its opposition to the treaty. Japan, on the other hand, signed and ratified the San Francisco treaty.

What Happens Nowadays?

Five years after the San Francisco Treaty, the Soviet Union and Japan embarked in peace talks. During those, the Soviet side proposed to settle the dispute by returning Shikotan and Habomai to Japan. In the final round, the Japanese accepted it, in exchange for a peace treaty.
The two sides signed the joint declaration in Moscow in 1956. But the declaration did not settle the dispute.
The main reason was the disagreement over the interpretation of the territorial provisions of the Declaration. The Soviets maintained that the Declaration resolved the dispute and that no territorial demarcation will be discussed beyond promised transfer of Shikotan and Habomai. Japan, however, believes that the peace treaty imply continuation of negotiations over the two larger islands as well.


Some experts believe that the US intervention in the negotiations prevented everything from solving. The US warned Japan that a withdrawal of the Japanese claim on the other islands would mean that the US would keep Okinawa.
They said that the San Francisco Peace Treaty “did not determine the sovereignty of the territories renounced by Japan, but that "Japan does not have the right to transfer sovereignty over such territories”.
Since then, the position of the two sides have not changed. In 2006, Vladimir Putin offered the return of Shikotan and Habomais if Japan would renounce its claims to the other two islands. Japan offered financial aid to the islands if they are handed over. Yet, residents started to benefit from economic growth, mainly by expansion in the fish processing industry.
Things have escalated a few times by now. For example, in 2008, the Japanese government published new school textbook guidelines, directing teachers to say that Japan has sovereignty over the Kuril Islands.
Russia has given several concessions to Japan, including introducing a visa-free trip for Japanese citizens. Japan’s fishermen are also allowed to catch fish in Russia’s claimed exclusive economic zone.

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