Japan from the inside out

Japan’s Northern Territories: Still simmering after 60 years

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 9, 2007

nt-map1You probably missed it, but February 7 was Northern Territories Day in Japan. But don’t feel bad—most people in Japan missed it, too. Television talk shows didn’t debate the subject, newspapers didn’t editorialize about it, and citizens didn’t meet to listen to discussions in auditoriums or demonstrate in the street. In fact, I wouldn’t have known about it myself had it not been for a small ad at the bottom of the front page of my local newspaper inserted by the Cabinet Office, with a Japanese-language URL. (Here’s the Foreign Ministry’s position in English.)

The term Northern Territories refers to the small islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan, and the Habomai islets. Formerly Japanese territory, the islands were seized by the Soviets in 1945. There were no hostilities between the two countries during World War II because of the Soviet-Japan Neutrality Pact. That is, until the Soviets abrogated the treaty on August 9, 1945, by declaring war on Japan—three days after the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Though Japan surrendered unconditionally on the 15th, the Soviets started occupying the southern Kuriles (to the north of Hokkaido) in the latter part of August, and didn’t finish until September 5.

Their only reason for this, of course, was to regain the territory they lost with their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. In other words, the Soviets chose to exact their revenge by kicking Japan when it was down. And the Japanese haven’t forgotten or forgiven.

Japan has longstanding territorial disputes with its three closest neighbors—China, South Korea, and Russia—and all involve small islands. More than national pride is at stake, as the potential financial benefits from the rights to oil and maritime resources could be enormous. Though the Japanese seldom spout off about the issue, they also won’t sign a separate peace treaty with Russia officially ending World War II until the Northern Territories issue is resolved. (The Soviets refused to sign the San Francisco Peace Treaty.) And Japan won’t provide significant financial assistance to the Russians until that happens.


The Japanese thought they were going to get all four back when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev promised to settle the issue. But Gorbachev had more pressing problems, and his successor Boris Yeltsin later backed off, promising to return two of the islands. Current Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to give back Shikotan and Habomai, which account for about 6% of the land area, if the Japanese renounced their claims to the other two islands, but that idea didn’t fly in Tokyo. The European Parliament passed a resolution in 2006 calling on the Russians to return all four to Japan, but that suggestion got shot down when it entered Moscow’s air space.

It might be instructive at this point to compare the approach of Japanese politicians and the public with that of their counterparts in China and South Korea.

When fewer than 0.1% of Japanese junior high schools adopted a history textbook that the Chinese didn’t like, the Chinese public raged nearly out of control, smashing and trashing Japanese businesses, attacking the Japanese embassy, burning the Japanese flag, and boycotting Japanese products. These activities received the implicit approval and material assistance of the Chinese government.

When Shimane Prefecture declared an official Takeshima Day for the islets it claims but South Korea occupies, the Koreans behaved just as badly, if more bizarrely, as demonstrators launched flaming arrows onto the grounds of the Japanese embassy. Some even cut off fingers in protest and mailed them in (apparently unaware that the Japanese would not be impressed, as finger amputation is a gesture of apology to one’s gang leader among the yakuza). Here too, popular emotion was inflamed by the government, particularly by the hopelessly unpopular President Roh, who has never passed up the opportunity to demagogue the issue in the hope of shoring up his plummeting popular support. (It didn’t work; South Koreans are literally counting the minutes until he vacates the Blue House for good.)

Yet what happened in Japan on Northern Territories Day? Did the Japanese run wild in the streets, attacking Russian businesses and government institutions? Did young Japanese torch the Russian flag? Did the Japanese media whip up chauvinistic sentiment among the people? Did the Japanese government covertly foment malice in the citizenry, or overtly rail against the Putin regime?

The answers are no, nope, nah, and nyet, respectively. On Northern Territories Day in Japan, everyone stayed cool.

What the Japanese did do, however—four months ago—was launch a new diplomatic initiative through Foreign Minister Taro Aso. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken several positive steps in foreign affairs since assuming office, including efforts to move closer to China, South Korea, and Europe. He is also anxious to close the book on World War II and the postwar period for good, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he raised the issue with the Russians.

Unfortunately, the Japanese suggestion was truly goofy. Foreign Minister Aso raised the question of dividing up the islands by measuring their area, rather than divvying up whole islands. That solution would create more problems than it would solve, but it is what it is: a trial balloon. They float by in the skies of international diplomacy all the time.

Once upon a time, the world’s media would have recognized a trial balloon when they saw it, but perceptive journalists are rather thin on the ground these days. It would also be instructive to take a quick look at how it was covered in the English-language press—if only to reveal the structural anti-Japanese bias, both inside and outside of Japan.

Take this AP article that appeared in the International Herald Tribune, for example. They say:

The island dispute is a favorite issue of Japanese right-wing politicians, who have demanded return of all four islands — a position rejected by Moscow.

Well…no. Had the AP done its homework, hired someone who could read Japanese, or eased up on pushing its political agenda, they would have found out that the issue is a favorite of all Japanese—right-wing, left-wing, politicians, and the general public alike.

Here are the results (in Japanese) of a Yomiuri Shimbun poll taken last September on Russian-Japanese relations. (70% of the Japanese don’t trust ‘em.) Here’s the breakdown of the responses regarding the Northern Territories:

  • All four islands should be returned at once: 40%
  • All four islands should be recognized as Japanese territory, but they don’t all have to be returned at once: 27%
  • The return of Habomai and Shikotan should be settled first, and discussions held about the other two: 19%
  • The return of Habomai and Shikotan should settle the issue: 3%

In other words 86% of the people polled want all four islands back at some point. Only 3% back the Russian solution.

Does that sound like a right-wing issue to you?

The AP then takes the standard media copout of asking for opinions from two “experts”, one a Japanese university professor, and the other a Kremlin-connected politician. The professor offered nothing that a hungover first-year poli-sci student at university couldn’t have come up with, and the Russian’s comments about Japan wanting to reconsider the results of the war is a hilarious bit of historical revisionism.

If you thought that article was pointless, you ought to try this op-ed piece in the left-leaning Japan Times. (Registration required) Confidential to the JT: Op-ed pieces are supposed to be based on informed opinion, not the rants of people who act as if they just stepped out of the Leyte jungles after fifty years of living on pineapples, mangoes, and the occasional maggot.

Despite having served as Kyodo’s chief editorialist, author Keizo Nabeshima fails to recognize a diplomatic trial balloon even after he walks into it. He suggests that the Abe Administration is rushing things (after 62 years?), that the initiative may have been made to shore up Abe’s poll numbers (showing that he is not one of the 500,000 Japanese to have read Abe’s book), and says that the Russian hard line stems from their improving financial condition (though their oil boom ended two years ago).

In fact, the only article I read about Aso’s initiative that contained even a glimmer of sense was this piece in a publication called the Kommersant out of Moscow. Apart from a couple of minor errors (the current Japanese administration is not neocon; these people have always been conservative, and Aso’s statements were hardly “slips”) they’ve come up with a more solid and informative piece of journalism than either the AP or anyone in Japan.

What more do you need to know about the state of Western journalism?

Frankly, I don’t know why the Abe Administration is even negotiating with the Russians at all. Contrary to Keizo Nabeshima’s beliefs about the soundness of the Russian nation, the country is locked in a demographic death spiral, it has the life expectancies, public health problems, and AIDS epidemic of a Third World country, an estimated 70% of all pregnancies end in abortion, and it is battling an ongoing Islamic insurgency, with more bubbling up on its borders and reaching into Moscow, where the Muslim population is now running close to 20%. (The Russian Army may have a Muslim majority by 2015.)

In addition, Russians are deserting the eastern part of their country in droves, taking anything portable of value with them. There have even been reports that the Russians might lease or sell large swatches of their unused land to the Chinese. This article suggests the Chinese buy the entire Russian Far East, lock, stock, and barrel. And some speculate that Vladivostok will before long revert to Chinese sovereignty and its former name of Haishenwei.

If the Japanese bide their time for a decade or two, they might well be able to get the islands back for nothing. They could walk right in, sit right down, and reclaim possession.

Who would stop them?

10 Responses to “Japan’s Northern Territories: Still simmering after 60 years”

  1. madne0 said

    Great post, great blog. Might i be so bold as to assume that you’re a Mark Steyn fan? 😉

  2. James A said

    I’m a newcomer to this blog too. Excellent place you got here!

    Excellent post on the whole Northern Territory issue Ampontan. Seriously, does Russia really need any more territory? They’ve still got the largest country in the world in terms of land mass, even after the USSR broke apart. If anything the Japanese could use some more land, space being a premium here and all. And like you said, the Russians are having enough trouble keeping what they’ve got under control. Chechnya anyone?

    And the misreporting from most media certainly doesn’t help. Then again, I’ve never really expected anything substantial about Japanese or Asian affairs from AP.

    However, if they do get incorporated back into Japan, there would be some challenges for both the national government and Hokkaido’s prefectual government to overcome. I don’t think there are many ethnic Japanese living on the islands currently, and apparently the level of poverty on the islands is pretty high. It would take time to bring the infrastructure on the islands up to the standards throughout Japan.

    Speaking of Northern Territory day, I did see an ad in the local newspaper about a lecture in Sendai relating to the islands. That’s all that caught my eye.

  3. Durf said

    The Northern Territories are all about fisheries rights. And maybe natural gas, although I don’t think anything has been found in those islands to date. Why would Russia turn its back on a bit of very productive water, especially when it’s located right next door to a huge market willing to pay top yen for the products that come from it?

    The “NT Day came and went without rioting” thing isn’t impressive at all when you consider the lack of rioting after Russia shot up the boat of trespassing Japanese fishermen a while back. Is that trial of the skipper still going on?

  4. ampontan said


    You ask, “Why would Russia turn its back on a bit of very productive water, especially when it’s located right next door to a huge market willing to pay top yen for the products that come from it?”

    Why would it turn its back on its very lucrative Far Eastern territories and all that land in Siberia? Yet that’s what it seems to be doing.

    madne0: Yes, I am a big Steyn fan!

  5. ampontan said

    Oh, and thank you, James A. Hope to see you here again!

  6. Durf said

    I’d be shocked if Russia ceded any territory to China that still contained substantial natural gas reserves, at least not without charging enough for it to make up for the sales it would have made to China and Japan.

  7. haafu said

    Well done and researched article. I was a fan of your postings back when you blogged at Japundit. Keep up the good work.

  8. GI Korea said

    I think Japan has a greater chance of recovering some the Kurils than it does trying to recover Dokdo/Takeshima. The Koreans will never let the islets go no matter what, so it is good to see Tokyo using diplomatic energy to recover islands they have a strong case to win back.

  9. […] Ampontan has a great posting about the island ownership controversy that the Japanese really do care about, and it is not […]

  10. Overthinker said

    Another issue with the NTs is that during the Cold War at least they provided a very good early warning net for catching US subs that might want to sneak up to the Maritime Provinces coast…. That issue is not so important, but I bet it’s still part of the problem.

    Not at all sure Russia will sell its land to China. Didn’t they learn from their mistake in Alaska? That would have been strategic gold to own during the Cold War….

    The Slate article seems to be nothing more than idle speculation about what could technically happen. The implication that Russia swiped it from the Qing in the 1850s also seems misleading: the Qing may have had economic interests in it, such as some lumber and fur perhaps, but it was hardly part of their empire (save a few areas along the border perhaps). To a large extent, it was terra nullius, and that’s the origin of the NT issue in a way – Japan and Russia both started getting serious about the area at about same time – hence the temporary dual occupation of Sakhalin/Karafuto. Then Japan traded its half of Sakhalin to Russia in exchange for the Kuril/Chishima islands (all the way to Kamchatka, not just the current four under dispute, so in that respect Japan is being quite modest in its demands). There has been no long-standing incorporation of the area – it’s colonial territory for both countries, really – so it’s not like Russia is holding, say, Sado.

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