A Challenged Neighborhood
No. 3 2011 July/September
Alexander Panov

Chief researcher at the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

The Current Stage of Russian-Japanese Relations

A mounting dispute has arisen in the past two years between Russia and Japan over a peace treaty that the two countries never signed after World War II. Japan has never recognized Russia’s rights to the Kuril Islands of Kunashir, Iturup, Habomai and Shikotan, over which the Soviet Union claimed sovereignty 66 years ago after the defeat of Japan.

The Kuril Islands dispute (also known as the Northern Territories dispute) has a long postwar history and repeated attempts have been made to settle it. There were periods when bilateral relations worsened, mostly caused by Japanese discontent over the lack of any progress in resolving the problem on its terms.

We seem to be going through such a period right now, which was not difficult to predict. However, this is the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union that the debates, reproaches and criticism have reached such a high level.

Before one analyzes the causes and consequences of the current heated debate over the territorial issue, there needs to be a comprehensive overview of Russian-Japanese relations.


Relations between post-Soviet Russia and Japan are two decades old, but bilateral ties, which started more than two centuries ago, have had a profound influence on these relations. The first Russian-Japanese treaty was signed in 1855.

Admittedly, the “new Russia” and “old Japan” are not yet ready to trust each other or have a true partnership, although the two countries proclaim “creative partnership” as the main course of their relations in official documents.

Although both Moscow and Tokyo understand the importance of bilateral relations, neither has yet decided on strategic objectives and the significance of Russian-Japanese interaction for them.

The two countries are objectively interested in maintaining relations at a certain level, and in actuality little depends on Moscow’s and Tokyo’s general speculations about whether to give priority to their relations or dismiss them as insignificant.

Twenty years is not a long period for bilateral relations, yet within this short time there has been a number of active developments, including the current semi-crisis. A general evaluation of Russian-Japanese ties – one that does not call for a radical improvement – shows that Russian-Japanese interaction is currently at a “mid-development level.” The two countries have a proper array of political, economic and cultural ties and exchanges, and even contacts between defense ministries. The territorial dispute certainly puts a damper on the normal course of bilateral interaction, but the parties have mutually reiterated that there should be no obstacles towards maintaining a certain level of practical contacts and matters of mutual interest.

Trade relations offer an illustrative example: foreign trade may grow, as it is at present, or shrink, as it did two years ago, depending on the economic situation in Russia, Japan and the world, but not due to resolutions made by government agencies in the two countries. There are certain types of commodities, above all raw materials, which Japan will buy from Russia regardless of the political atmosphere between the two countries, or how the Japanese government feels about Russia. In any case, trade with Russia amounts to around 24 billion dollars a year, but is of little significance to Japan, especially when compared with Japan’s foreign trade with the United States or China.

In contrast, economic and investment cooperation is different. Here the situation depends to a considerable extent on political factors. Japanese businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, look to federal agencies when it comes to cooperating with Russian companies and adjust their positions accordingly. Under these circumstances the unresolved peace treaty certainly tempers the enthusiasm of Japanese business circles.

At the same time, given a genuine interest in cooperation projects with Russia, which are not only important for Japanese business, but for the Japanese economy in general, Japanese business leaders can induce the government not to interfere in their dealings with Russia, and even support their efforts. For example, Japanese companies were actively involved in implementing large-scale cooperation projects in Siberia and the Far East in the 1970s. At that time the Soviet leadership resolutely denied the existence of “an unresolved territorial dispute” issue on the bilateral agenda.

The Russian market still remains attractive for Japanese business. Japanese companies have repeatedly confirmed their readiness for large-scale cooperation in Siberia and the Far East. Their efforts are hampered not so much by the territorial problem, as by the poor business climate. These problems include excessive administrative interference, an unstable legal groundwork, arbitrary interpretation of legislative and administrative acts, complicated customs and immigration procedures, and a lack of reliable infrastructure.

Nor is there a visible resolve on the part of Russian agencies to revitalize cooperation with Japan along the lines of the Soviet-Japanese partnership.

Although there is much talk, little is being done in practice. However, the inter-governmental economic cooperation commission holds regular meetings, and the parties sign letters of intent to support project implementation, including in the Far East.

Russian business is apparently not keen to work in Japan. It is difficult for Russian companies to promote their finished products in the highly competitive and closed Japanese market. Russian business is also passive and unable to seek and find promising Japanese partners. In addition, Russian business in the Far East and Siberia, which took over the key segment of the market and has no desire for change, fears the intrusion of overseas capital, including Japanese, and is blocking the arrival of foreign rivals.

Objectively, Russian and Japanese interests are not inconsistent in any major field of cooperation – be it politics, the economy or national security. Russia poses no threat to Japan, and vice versa. Instead, there is mutual striving for stability in the Asia-Pacific region, above all in its northeastern part.

Tokyo is particularly interested in removing the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. It is increasingly wary of China’s military potential, and the possibility of projecting it to the maritime areas around Japanese islands.

At the same time, the Japanese business elite obviously does not want to be dragged into the U.S. strategy of deterring China, because a worsening of relations with a powerful neighbor may result in political and economic losses. On the other hand, Tokyo is not enthusiastic about the prospect of becoming Beijing’s junior partner. Thus, Japan is considering the expediency of more advanced relations with Russia, keeping the Chinese and Korean factors in mind. Some Japanese analysts have even called for following Seoul’s lead. They argue that South Korea, after a drastic improvement in relations with Moscow, secured its tougher stance on Pyongyang’s nuclear program and its strong reaction to the recent incidents involving the use of military force on the Korean peninsula.

Obviously, Russia, too, would prefer to have more balanced relations with China and Japan as two major regional and world powers.

A visit to Moscow in February 2011 by Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara confirmed that, despite the heightened conflict over the territorial issue, the parties are ready to cooperate and interact in tackling the most pressing international problems. During their talks, the Russian and Japanese foreign ministers said they wanted to step up interaction towards strengthening security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region by coordinating their positions in multi-lateral regional agencies. They mapped out ways of cooperation, including assisting with the rebuilding of Afghanistan, agreeing to increase cooperation towards denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, and fighting international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Objective factors operate independently from the emotions of political leaders and the public in both countries, and guarantee a certain coincidence of mutual interests. Therefore, the current aggravation of Russian-Japanese relations is unlikely to seriously influence bilateral ties.


Presumably, it was a confluence of several factors.

Japan’s political, business, public and scientific circles have been increasingly resentful lately about a lack of “progress towards the settlement of the Northern Territories dispute” and peace talks.

At the end of the 20th century and in the first year of the 21st century, the two countries tried to find a formula for compromise in the delimitation issue. It was then that Russia stated its readiness to begin substantive talks on the basis of Article 9 of the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which envisions the handover of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan after a peace treaty is signed.

This was a historic proposal. After signing and ratifying the Joint Declaration of 1956, Soviet and Russian leaders never made similar proposals. That move required considerable political courage, and the mere mention of even slight territorial concessions to a foreign power provokes a negative response from many politicians and the public.

However, Tokyo did not appreciate this move towards a realistic compromise to settle the delimitation problem. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made it clear that at peace treaty negotiations Japan would not only discuss the return of Habomai and Shikotan, but also Kunashir and Iturup – all together and at the same time. For Russia, negotiations under this kind of ultimatum were unacceptable. Koizumi’s successors continued to stick to the position he had voiced.

The Russian leadership had no other choice but to announce that under these circumstances it would abide by the results of World War II, i.e. by claiming these islands as the successor of the Soviet Union, one of the victors in the war.

As a result, the peace talks stalled for almost a decade.

In May 2009 Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Japan. It was a successful visit, during which the parties signed many important accords in the field of bilateral economic cooperation.

However, the opponents of Japanese-Russian rapprochement immediately launched a “counteroffensive.” In June 2009, both chambers of the Japanese parliament unanimously passed a resolution reiterating the official position that Russia “illegally occupied the Southern Kurils.” In November 2009, the Japanese government approved the Foreign Ministry’s document, which similarly termed Russia’s presence there as an “illegal occupation.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry sent an official note to Japan about the unacceptability of Japan’s position. A very negative response came from the Russian Federal Assembly (parliament), but this did not deter Japanese supporters from “the principled position on the territorial problem.” Japanese ministers, politicians, public figures and scientists regularly made statements in the spirit of parliamentary resolutions, underlining that building partnership relations with Russia was impossible without meeting Japan’s territorial claims.

Negative emotions peaked in late 2010 and early 2011 after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashir on November 1, 2010 to address the development of the Kuril territories, so that “investments, money and social benefits come to this region.” Japan launched a campaign of criticism against Medvedev’s trip, although it is natural for a top official to visit any region in his own country. Tokyo even temporarily recalled its ambassador from Russia in protest.

Tokyo also denounced subsequent visits to Kunashir and Iturup by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, Regional Development Minister Victor Basargin, and other Russian government officials. Japanese criticism hit the highest point on February 11, 2011 – “Northern Territories Day” – when Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan described Medvedev’s trip to Kunashir as “very regrettable.” Foreign Minister Maehara said that the trip “hurts Japanese public sentiment,” while ultra-right nationalists desecrated the Russian flag in front of the Russian embassy in Japan.

This severely complicated bilateral relations. The Japanese government reshuffle had a role to play, too. After more than fifty years in power, the Liberal Democratic Party lost to the Democratic Party in 2009. Nevertheless, the new ruling party proved unable to secure strong political leadership, put forth clear, long-term development goals, or show the resolve and will to implement them.

There are influential forces in Japan today which are not interested in resolving the delimitation problem with Russia. With their genetic mistrust and critical perception of anything Russian, the Japanese prefer to keep the territorial problem as a kind of regulator for bilateral relations. As soon as cooperation with Russia begins to develop at what the Japanese believe is an excessively fast rate, they hoist the banner of the struggle for native Japanese territories.


A period of instability continues in Japan. As a result, the country’s foreign policy is chaotic, passive and uncertain, which is “compensated” for by attempts to act along nationalist lines.

The situation is further complicated by disagreements stemming from the conflict between the Democratic Party leadership and Japanese diplomats, which reflects the general confrontation between the Democratic Party and bureaucrats. Democratic Party leaders began governing the country by announcing a course aimed at the political control of long-term government bureaucrats, who have traditionally run Japan along with the politicians. The Democrats not only began to set certain tasks before federal officials, but also controlled their activity. The diplomats retaliated by sabotaging many political decisions made by the Party’s leadership.

There are few politicians in the leadership of the ruling party who are well-versed in the fine points of relations with Russia. In trying to prove to the electorate that its choice of the Democrats was correct, the party tries to hide its incompetence in its Russian policy behind populism and nationalist rhetoric.

Moreover, after a reshuffle and the ousting of a group of diplomats from the foreign ministry in the early 2000s, who wanted to compromise with Russia on the territorial problem, the hardliners took over.

There are still not enough diplomats competent in Russian affairs at the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Remarkably, this deficiency in the ministry was immediately noticed in the U.S. According to cables from the U.S. embassy in Tokyo to the U.S. Department of State, disclosed by Wikileaks, “Japan lacks a plan to negotiate the return of the Northern Territories and a leader to step up and see the plan through.” The U.S. embassy believes that the Japanese prime minister has “few credible advisors on Northern Territories policy and his leadership style precludes him from listening to anyone about the problem.” It was also noted that “few Japanese organizations, think tanks or other entities are developing any policy direction for him, including the Foreign Ministry” (The Japan Times, May 5, 2011).

The above telegrams are dated from 2007-2009, but nothing has improved since then about the lack of Russian specialists. Furthermore, the situation seems to have become even more acute.

It would be safe to assume that at the present stage the Japanese leadership, while understanding in general the importance of relations with Moscow, has just a handful of people interested in dramatically improving these relations or who know how to do so.

Anti-Russian sentiment has grown considerably in Japan after the two countries traded sharp statements and moves in the past 18 months, while Russian public opinion has been increasingly negative towards Japan. An example of this can be seen by the reaction to the tragic events in Japan, which followed the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

An overwhelming majority of the Russian public expressed its sympathy and compassion with Japan after the disaster hit. At the same time, well-known politicians and public figures made anti-Japanese statements, such as Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Orthodox priest Alexander Shumsky, and world-renowned movie director Nikita Mikhalkov. Shumsky wrote in an article that “the earthquake and tsunami were God’s way of punishing Japan for offending Russia, because some protesters had recently burned Russian flags and destroyed portraits of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.”

Moreover, Russophobes in Japan also stepped up their activity. Kazuo Ogura, President of the Japan Foundation and a former diplomat, and Professor Shigeki Hakamada, an authority on Russia, did not say a word about the assistance Russia had offered to the devastated Japanese regions. However, they emphasized that Russia, on a wave of nationalism and lack of democracy, wished to consolidate the ownership of the Northern Territories and said Russia “is a potential source of instability in the Far East.”

Publications appeared in Japan warning that Russia sent “a 161-man rescue team to the quake-devastated region” because this “was the traditional Russian tactic of fishing in troubled waters,” and that “Russia is thinking of building a nuclear power plant on Kunashir and supplying Japan with electric power from there” in the hope that Tokyo would “give up its claim to the Northern Territories.” There was also a warning that “the day could come when Gazprom, if equipped with enough financial resources, buys up Tepco.” (The Japan Times, April 11, 2011)

Luckily, such views did not prevail, although they did show how profound the mutual mistrust was.

The Russian leadership immediately expressed its readiness to provide the necessary aid to Japan to help it overcome the tragedy. Shortly after the March 11 earthquake, President Medvedev had a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Kan.

On March 12, Prime Minister Putin ordered government officials responsible for energy policy to study the possibility of boosting the supply of hydrocarbons. A week later he said Gazprom was ready to increase supplies of natural gas to Europe by 60 million cubic liters through pipelines, roughly the equivalent of 40,000 tons of liquefied natural gas a day. The extra LNG could be exported to Japan, so that the country would receive up to four million tons of additional LNG.

On March 19, a Russian Emergency Situations Ministry plane flew a large shipment of relief supplies to Japanese regions hit hard by the earthquake. The shipment included more than 17,000 blankets and two tons of drinking water.

Prime Minister Kan thanked Russia for its assistance in a telephone conversation with President Medvedev on March 14.

* * *

The tragic events in Japan drew attention away from the territorial dispute. Obviously, the heat of emotions around this issue will subside over time, as has already happened in Russian-Japanese relations in the past. The inevitable question is what to do next.

In the first place, we have to stop the vicious circle of mutual accusations and reproaches over any actions or statements about the peace treaty or the territorial problem.

There needs to be a focus on building an atmosphere of mutual understanding, and, subsequently, on confidence-building measures. To this end, the sides should launch varied and broad channels of contacts and dialogue. At present, only the leaders of the two countries and the foreign ministers meet regularly.

This explains why Japanese political and public quarters have little information about what is happening in Moscow. On the other hand, Russia has done little to forge a positive image for itself among the Japanese political elite and people. The annual “Festivals of Russian Culture” in Japan certainly help, but the history of cultural exchanges with Japan shows that, while evoking great interest in the Japanese, such events nevertheless do not make serious headway in removing the persisting negative stereotypes with respect to Russia.

Therefore, it is crucial to launch regular intensive exchanges with Japanese politicians and public figures, and dramatically broaden contacts between parliamentarians. The two countries should resume the practice of regular round table discussions and conferences held under the aegis of think tanks and the mass media.

In the economic sector the launch of at least one or two large joint projects needs to be implemented in Siberia and the Far East. Moreover, Moscow might step up efforts to attract Japan to the discussion of joint economic opportunities in the Southern Kurils and the adjacent territorial waters.

Now that public opinion in Russia and Japan is opposed to any compromise on the territorial issue, it is difficult to expect any breakthroughs. Bilateral relations should take a gradual turn for the better by developing ties in all fields and preparing the groundwork for more productive action in the future.

This scenario looks quite feasible, as was proven by Russian-Japanese relations in the late 1990s and the beginning of this century, when the scope of bilateral ties reached an unprecedented level in the entire postwar history of interaction. This relationship opened the prospect for finding a solution to the delimitation problem, but, regrettably, the opportunity was lost. This experience should help avoid the mistakes of the past.