In a meeting on January 3, 2016, with regional Japanese officials PM Shinzo Abe once again called on Russia to secure a peace treaty after over 70 years.
Northern Territories or Kuril Islands?
Mr. Abe, who took over as Prime Minister in 2012, has repeatedly looked to strengthen relations with Moscow and once again stated his desire to finally formalize a peace treaty with Russia.
The two nations ceased hostilities in 1945 at the end of World War II and resumed diplomatic relations with Russia since 1956. However, while the two may have diplomatic relations they do not have a peace treaty with a nation that they ceased hostilities with over 70 years ago.
The lack of a peace treaty can be summed up in two words: Kuril Islands. In 1945, within days of Japan’s surrender to the Allies, the former Soviet Union seized four islands historically belonging to Japan which were known as the Northern Territories. The island chain in dispute stretches north in the Pacific from the (Japanese) island of Hokkaido to the the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia). The four islands in question are: Shikotan, Kunashir, Hobomai (group), and Iturup.
The seizure of these four islands is what has been the primary reason for the lack of a peace treaty something that Abe says he and Putin both view as “abnormal.”
The two last discussed the issue of the islands in 2013, and Abe believes a summit is necessary to discuss the issue.
“Without a summit meeting, this Northern Territories problem cannot be resolved,” he said, according to the BBC. A recently planned trip to of Putin’s to Japan has been delayed by Russia’s presence in both the Ukraine and it’s involvement in both Syria and Iraq.
Islands and a peace treaty?
Firstly, you can certainly understand why both groups claim these islands. Russia could certainly make a claim for “to the victor go the spoils of war” while if you’re standing in the city of Nemuro on the Japanese island of Hokkaido and have two kilometers of visibility who can see the southernmost islet in the Habomai group.
The Japanese began migrating to the Northern Territories in the 18th and 19th century, a fair bit of his migration was done by members of Hokkaido’s minority Ainu Community.
When Russia took possession of the islands in 1945, it could certainly be argued that they were in violation of the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda signed by both nations. The treaty stipulated that Japan would own the four islands in question while Russia would get all the islands in the chain north of the four.
Prior to the onset of World War II, there were about 15,000 Japanese living on the disputed four islands. In the four years between 1945 and 1949, the former Soviet Union had deported all of them back to Japan.
When Japan signed the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty it renounced “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands. This, however, is a moot point as Russia (Soviet Union) never signed the 1951 treaty and Japan never considered the four islands as part of the Kurils.
The 15,000 Japanese that lived on the islands has been completely replaced by over 30,000 Russians on the islands. This includes a growing military presence on one of the two northern islands, Iturup.
In 2004, Putin hinted that Russia might be willing to return the two southernmost islands but gave no indication that it would give up the two larger islands in the north of the chain.
However, Putin has also shown signs that he has no intention of returning the southern islands that make up only 7% of the former Northern Territories.
“We’ll strengthen military readiness along the border in the Far East region,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on last month on Dec. 1. He also pointed out that Russia is in the process of building around 400 army posts on the two northern islands under dispute.
In April 2013, Abe and Putin agreed to seek “a solution acceptable to both sides.” While that is all well and good, Russia passed a plan earlier this year to spend over $600 million on developing the whole chain so that looks a little fleeting.
Japan, knowing that it stands little chance of seeing the islands return has said, “if it is confirmed the four territories belong to Japan, then Japan will be flexible with the timing and manner of their return.”
Natural resources at the heart of the Peace Treaty?
The area is home to great fishing resources and large Russian trawlers with Russia’s support have essentially crippled Japanese fishing in the waters around the chain.
Additionally, there is a tourist draw to the larger islands in the north with their volcanoes and sea views.