Russia and Japan: A Failed Breakthrough
№3 2005 July/September

February 7, 2005 marked the date
of a major landmark moment in the history of Russian-Japanese
relations: 150 years ago, Russian Admiral Yevfimy Putyatin’s
mission established official relations between the two countries.
Undoubtedly, this anniversary will spark a new round of discussions
about a peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo which was never
signed after World War II. A few months before the anniversary,
various kinds of proposals and conjectures with regard to the
sensitive “Northern Territories” issue began to make the rounds in
the two countries.

In early
November 2004, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a
televised interview that Russia was ready to fulfill its
commitments stated in the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration
and hand over to Japan the southern Kuril Islands of Habomai and
Shikotan. This would be done, Lavrov said, on condition that Tokyo
finally signs a peace treaty with Moscow. Shortly thereafter,
Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated this readiness at a
meeting with Cabinet members, saying that “Russia is ready to
fulfill its agreements with Japan to the degree that is understood
by our partners.”

However, at a forum of the
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Santiago, Chile,
following Putin’s comments, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi rejected Russia’s proposal and emphasized Japan’s
determination to get all four disputed Kuril Islands from Russia.
The statement played the role of a sobering shower for all the
participants in the peace negotiations.

Nonetheless, Vladimir Putins’s
visit to Japan will take place – either on the eve or immediately
after the APEC summit due in November 2005. There is no doubt that
a dozen important documents will be signed, yet one should hardly
expect any breakthrough in the territorial dispute.

This is evidenced by two abortive
attempts by the Foreign Ministers of Russia and Japan to
tentatively find a way out from the political stalemate – during
Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Tokyo in late May and his meeting with
Nobutaka Motimura in Brussels in June. Russia’s disappointment over
this failure was openly expressed by Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov
at a forum of the 21st Century Russian Committee and Russia-Japan
Society held in Moscow to discuss the 1956 Joint Declaration:
“Russia seeks to conclude a peace treaty with Japan and cooperate
with it on a mutually advantageous basis. However, the situation
over this issue is sweepingly progressing toward

Russia attempted to display its
goodwill with the proposal of a compromise but was snubbed; Japan
obviously does not wish to avail itself of a real opportunity of
receiving territorial concessions. What a skillfully played gambit,
it could be argued!

On the one hand, there is an
impression that Putin is ready to cut the Gordian knot and return
to Japan the so-called Northern Territories, that is, the southern
Kurils. Analysts reason that because Putin received such strong
support in the latest presidential elections, he can allow himself
to swim against the current and make an unpopular decision in order
to finally resolve this sore issue. Moreover, the remarkable
anniversary of the establishment of Russian-Japanese relations may
inspire the president to make a grand gesture.

On the other hand, even before the
statements of Russia’s foreign minister and president had been
made, there had appeared articles in the press asking whether
Russia really needs a peace treaty with Japan. The same articles
provided a negative answer to this question. One Russian
state-controlled television channel, for example, showed a
documentary about inhuman medical “experiments” conducted by
Detachment 731 of Japan’s Kwantung Army during World War II. It
seems that influential groups who are opposed to any discussions on
the territorial issue are stepping up their efforts.


Academic and political circles are
now divided over the territorial issue. An increasing number of
their members argue that the absence of internationally recognized
borders, as well as a peace treaty with Japan, is not natural.
Moreover, many politicians and experts say that the islands must be
returned to Japan unconditionally and immediately because they were

Russia cannot agree with this
point of view because the lands at issue were not stolen: Japan
lost the four southernmost Kuril islands as a result of its defeat
in war. Similarly, Mexico lost its northern territories (now the
U.S. states of Texas, New Mexico and California) in 1848, which,
however, does not prevent it from maintaining close relations with
the United States and participating with it in integration
processes within the framework of the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA).

Imagine Tokyo’s reaction had
Moscow demanded back the southern half of the Sakhalin Island,
which it was forced to surrender in accordance with the Treaty of
Portsmouth following Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1905. The
situation with the Kurils and southern Sakhalin are not entirely
identical, of course, yet their essence is the same: the loss of
territory was the result of defeat in war.
In the middle of the 20th century, the international community
proclaimed a principle of “non-accretion of territory” as a result
of war, but numerous violations of international law committed
since then by major world powers and smaller countries have made
this principle seem a bit hypocritical.

The opposite point of view
is: “We will not surrender a single inch of Russian land.” This
position rests on patriotic sentiments that have been roused by
painful reminiscences in connection with territories lost since the
collapse of the Soviet Union. This point of view has influential
supporters from among federal and regional politicians. One of
them, Sakhalin Governor Ivan Malakhov, has made his position
explicitly clear: “For us such an issue does not exist… For us the
Kuril Islands are part of the Sakhalin Region.” He is partly right:
after all, people who were born on the islands have the right to
consider them their native land. Meanwhile, some politicians
believe that territorial concessions would be tantamount to the
loss of national dignity.


There are also reasons of
a political and economic nature for defending Russia’s claims to
the Kurils. Many Russian experts resort to historical arguments in
a bid to consolidate Moscow’s positions in the territorial dispute.
They spend much time and energy studying rare diplomatic documents
and maps and seem to have left no stone unturned! But such a way of
thinking and acting only serves to plunge Russian-Japanese
relations into a state of political malaise.


Indeed, both points of
view lead to an impasse. The truth seems to lie somewhere in the
middle, so the parties should look for a civilized compromise. The
presence of the territorial dispute is not only Japan’s problem; it
is also Russia’s headache.

Tokyo’s approach to solving the territorial
problem is characterized by two basic lines. On the one side are
those who hold maximum goals: they do not want any compromises and
advocate the unconditional return of all four islands to Japan. The
supporters of the second viewpoint agree to a step-by-step approach
to solving the territorial problem and argue that Japan should
first content itself with the return of Shikotan and Habomai.
Thereafter, it should develop, in every way possible, economic
cooperation with Russia, and only then raise the issue of the other
two islands. Experience suggests that any attempt to have the
islands returned at once stand very little chance of



The opinion is generally
held in both Russia and Japan that the main reason for strained
relations between Moscow and Tokyo is the long-standing territorial
dispute. The real reason, however, lies much deeper: relations
between the two countries rest on a mutual mistrust that has been
inherited from previous generations. Japan’s historical memory
remembers the threat of the late 19th century when Russia dominated
in Manchuria.


Russian-Japanese relations
have experienced several crises, as a result of which Japan
forfeited its claims to the Liaodong Peninsula [Japan had received
it after the 1894-1895 war with China; later, Russia, Germany and
France demanded that Japan be denied the right to own the peninsula
under the pretext of preserving China’s “territorial inviolability”
– Ed.]. Later, Japan saw Russia’s construction of the Chinese
Eastern Railroad in northeast China in 1897-1903 as a serious
threat [after the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, the railroad’s
southern leg became the property of Japan, which it named the
Southern Manchurian Railroad –

Other factors that contributed to Japan’s
growing suspicions of Russia included the lease of Port Arthur by
Russia, as well as the activation of Russian troops in Manchuria in
1900 during the 1899-1901 anti-Western uprising of peasants and
poor town-dwellers in north China [known in the West as the Boxer
Rebellion. The uprising was initiated by a secret religious society
called Yihequan [Righteous and Harmonious Fists – Ed.].

The Soviet Union’s
decision to join in the war against Japan in August 1945 – which
the Japanese emphasize it did in violation of a treaty of
neutrality – seriously hurt their national pride. Furthermore, the
imprisonment of more than 600,000 Japanese prisoners of war in
Siberia delivered a crushing blow to relations between the two
countries. On the whole, the Japanese viewed their Communist
neighbor as a “giant bear,” occasionally tossing and turning in his
lair. Many Japanese still share this view. Japan’s perception of
Russia as a large unpredictable state which may one day “roll over”
and crush the tiny country only adds to the Japanese people’s
apprehensions concerning Russia. Until quite recently, Russia was
considered to be among the potential enemies of the Land of the
Rising Sun.

Although both countries adjoin each other in
Northeast Asia, the Japanese view Russia more of a European (that
is, faraway) state. In the Japanese language there is even a
special term for Japan’s territories facing Russia – ura-no Nihon,
that is, “the reverse side of Japan.” This can be translated to
mean that Japan is facing the United States and has turned its back
on Russia.

Meanwhile, Moscow has
invariably viewed Japan as part of the Far Eastern region – this is
probably because that country is so psychologically “distant” from
us. Moreover, it is perceived as a source of danger. Russians still
remember the military defeat they experienced in 1905, the
atrocities of Japanese troops that invaded Russia’s Far East in
1918 in the course of the Civil War in Russia, and military
provocations near Lake Khasan (1938) and on the Khalkin Gol River
(1939). Finally, decades of Communist indoctrination of the Russian
population had a definite effect. Stalin’s propaganda, together
with the provocative actions of the Japanese army, provided the
motivation for the Soviet Union to join in the war against Japan.
The word “Samurai” still evokes negative feelings amongst the
Russian people.

According to public opinion polls, an absolute
majority of the Russian population does not know that the disputed
territories never belonged to Russia or the Soviet Union before
1945. We are now witnessing a geographical, or rather
psychological, watershed: for Russians, Sakhalin and the Kurils are
their “farthest East,” whereas Japan, as part of the American
“security system,” is the “farthest West.” Meanwhile, these islands
are only a narrow strait apart from each other. The international
experience of the last few decades suggests that such a refracted
perception of the problem must be overcome.

It is now obvious that the
Japanese want to turn and face Russia’s Far East and find an
acceptable solution to the territorial dispute. There is the
impression, however, that this issue is being deliberately
exploited by part of Japan’s political establishment that is
oriented to the U.S. Furthermore, Japanese society generally views
Russia as a country with innate “complexes” which it will be hard
pressed to get rid of. The Japanese consciousness is having trouble
getting over stereotypes that are based on emotional perception, a
trait characteristic of the

Yet, emotions are gradually giving way to
pragmatic approaches in Japan. At the same time, it would be too
early to say that the atmosphere of mistrust between Japan and
Russia has disappeared. The negative tendencies, which have arisen
in the course of Russia’s economic reforms, have evoked
apprehensions among the Japanese. This sharply reduces any chances
for the signing of a peace



International experience
may prove useful for solving the problems between Russia and Japan.
Suffice it to recall the classical example of Israel returning the
Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982. The peninsula’s area exceeds that
of the southern Kurils and even Israel itself (the total area of
the islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup is 5,036
square kilometers, i.e., 0.029 percent of the entire territory of
Russia). Psychologically, it was rather difficult for the Israelis
to return the peninsula because it contains one of the holiest
places in Judaism, Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten
Commandments from God. Yet, Israel relinquished the territory in
exchange for peace – and won: the peace between Israel and Egypt
proved to be durable, and the formula of territorial settlement for
the sake of political stability

Another interesting example is when the United
States returned the Ryukyu archipelago, including the island of
Okinawa, to Japan. This happened in 1972, twenty years after
Washington concluded a security treaty with Tokyo, which made the
two countries close military and political allies. Yet, U.S.
military bases still occupy a large part of the islands. A similar
agreement could help to reach a demarcation formula that would be
acceptable to both Russia and Japan. The problem is that Tokyo will
not conclude any agreement until it has firm guarantees from Russia
that the territorial issue will be settled. From Japan’s point of
view, the conclusion of a treaty would considerably reduce their
chances for having the islands returned. The Japanese leaders are
interested in preserving effective levers of pressure on

Throughout Russian history
there have also been examples of ceding territory. In 1867, for
example, the czarist government sold Alaska to the United States
for a token sum when it realized that exercising real control over
that remote territory would be too heavy a burden for

Or take the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia
“granted” to Ukraine. In the context of its own territorial
problem, Japan’s political elite views the problem of the Crimea
from a special perspective. In the opinion of Tokyo experts, Russia
ceded the peninsula to Ukraine with surprising ease, although
“historically and from the point of view of Russia’s security, as
well as for the Russian citizens’ hearts, the Crimea is a region of
major importance which is incommensurable with the significance of
the northern islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup”
(Landmarks on the Way to a Peace Treaty Between Japan and Russia.
Eighty-Eight Questions from Russian Citizens (Translated from
Japanese). Moscow: Materik, 2000, p. 105). Moscow’s complaisance on
this issue inspired hope in Japan that the return of the southern
Kurils would be equally painless for the Russians. Indeed, if the
territorial dispute with Japan had as much influence on Russia’s
strategic priorities as the “Crimean issue” (and in the case with
the Crimea Russia’s stake was very high: Ukraine’s withdrawal from
Russia’s sphere of influence could have unbalanced the entire
system of international relations in Europe), it would be settled
much quicker.

Still greater – yet
hopeless – expectations were aroused in Japan by Russia’s handover
of border islands on the Amur and Argun rivers to China (without
going into detail let us note that the roots of the disputes in
both cases differed fundamentally).  

Today, however, the atmosphere around the
territorial problem remains very strained. As Japanese professor
Akihiro Iwashita put it, “the sensation-hungry media and some
self-styled ‘specialists in the territorial issue’ turn any serious
attempts to find a solution to the territorial problem into a
sensation or scandal.” No progress should be expected for achieving
a peace treaty unless the tone of Russian-Japanese relations


It is generally believed that economic
cooperation between Russia and Japan can be one of the most
effective ways to accelerate the conclusion of a peace treaty. The
Japanese are, on the whole, skeptical about using economic levers
and are not inclined to make the settlement of the territorial
problem dependent on the establishment of closer economic ties with

The present level of
economic relations between the two countries is not high. Professor
Shigeki Hakamada, an outstanding Japanese expert in Russian
politics, has written an article with a rather expressive title –
The Russian Crisis and Fragility of the Society of Low Confidence.
In it, he wrote: “The true reason behind the political and economic
setbacks in Russia is the lack of basic principles of civil
society, based on mutual confidence, which is valued very highly in
Japanese society. If there is no confidence, there can be no
business. The displacement of capital for use in speculative
operations and tax evasion considerably impedes the country’s
transition to a market economy.”

Hakamada says that, unlike the Japanese whose
national psychology is characterized by a devotion to order,
Russians gravitate more toward spontaneity. Spontaneity, as the
antipode of order, scares the Japanese away. Here is a very typical
example: an “average” Japanese businessman has decided to obey the
rules of the game in Russia, but he does not know whom to bribe,
since many Russian officials willingly take bribes but do nothing
in return. Such conduct puzzles Japanese businesspeople, who are
also annoyed by the absence of elementary production discipline at
Russian industrial enterprises.

The Japanese business
community is particularly irritated by the absence of legal
guarantees in Russia, or rather, by the instability in this sphere.
Many Japanese view “business Russian style” as a game totally
without rules, or as a game with rules that constantly and
unexpectedly change. Japanese companies would have hardly refrained
from investing in Russia if their investment brought them “normal”
dividends, with the certainty that they were protected against
racketeering and not dependent on the arbitrariness of the
bureaucrats. Japanese businesspeople are very apprehensive about
crime in Russia and they have a tendency to overdramatize the

In Russia, according to opinion polls conducted
by the Russian business community, there is no stable and, more
importantly, active interest in Japanese investment. Russian
businessmen, of course, are interested in making money, but they do
not display enough responsibility or desire to duly fulfill their
obligations. The Japanese are baffled and dispirited by the
“laziness” and passiveness they witness in some of their Russian

Thus, there are no
influential social or lobby groups in Russia or Japan which are
interested enough in finding a resolution to the territorial
dispute (on the basis of a reasonable compromise) that they would
petition their governments on the issue. In fact, this conflict is
not the main obstacle, and certainly not the only obstacle, to
improving economic relations between the two countries.


Nevertheless, there are
grounds for hope. In April 2004, Moscow hosted a meeting of the
Russian-Japanese Council of Wise Men, co-chaired by Moscow Mayor
Yuri Luzhkov and Japan’s ex-prime minister Yoshiro Mori. The
council was set up to add new life to the Russian-Japanese
negotiations (as a rule, these negotiations, first viewed as
“historic,” would later bring about profound disillusionment in
Japan. Following the 1997 meeting between Boris Yeltsin and
Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in Krasnoyarsk, for
example, the Russian president promised to conclude a peace treaty
with Japan before 2000). The public expects new and substantial
ideas from the Council of Wise Men, a nongovernmental organization.
A notable idea came at the council’s April meeting, when the Moscow
mayor proposed launching economic cooperation between the two
countries on the southern Kurils.

The last few years have seen the emergence of a
new factor in the development of bilateral ties: high oil prices on
the world market. This factor can provide a boost to the joint
efforts of concluding a peace treaty. If oil prices continue to
increase, the Japanese economy may be hit by a major crisis and
experience a decline similar to that of the 1970s. Moreover, the
escalation of tensions in the Middle East has increased the demand
for crude oil in Asian countries.

These factors have
prompted the Japanese authorities to diversify their sources of
fuel supplies. They view Russia and, to a lesser extent, West
Africa and Iran as the main alternative suppliers. The Japanese
have demonstrated high interest in the construction of an
Angarsk-Nakhodka pipeline, as well as participating in geological
surveys. They have shown an interest in oil and gas extraction
projects in Russia, in particular in the Irkutsk Region. Clearly,
the threat of economic crisis is causing the Japanese politicians
to step up their cooperation with Russia.



Naturally, the Russian leadership would like to
get rid of the territorial “headache” and find an acceptable
solution to the problem. After all, Russia needs internationally
recognized borders in the Far East. At the same time, however,
Moscow does not want to return the islands.

Is Putin capable of
cutting the Gordian knot? Theoretically, the answer is yes, but
practically speaking, it will prove to be a difficult task. This is
particularly the case when we consider that he would have to make
this painful move against the background of other unpopular
measures, such as the recent decision to replace social benefits
for low income people with cash payments. There were also reform
initiatives for housing and public utilities, not to mention within
the pension system. Obviously, there can be no simple and quick
solution to this problem.

There is no doubt that the Japanese leadership
would also like to settle the territorial dispute and heal Japan’s
wounded national pride. But at the same time, it is also not ready
to make sacrifices and

The solution of the territorial problem between
Russia and Japan requires meaningful and consistent efforts to
reach a compromise because neither country is going to surrender
its positions. At the end of 2004, President Putin (at an annual
grand press conference) and Prime Minister Koizumi (in a later
reply) exchanged sharp statements on the issue.

Now Russia and Japan have
two options: they can either halt their talks, or they can continue
their negotiations on a territorial demarcation, despite the
previous setbacks. When two states really seek to settle their
differences, they can surely achieve this

At the present stage, however, there is an
impression that Russia is more interested in a compromise than
Japan, as Tokyo keeps turning down Moscow’s proposals.
Nevertheless, changes are already taking place in the
foreign-policy mentality of Japanese and Russian societies. More
and more Japanese want to see their homeland not as a great
military and political power, but as a cozy “Asian Switzerland” –
an ecologically clean country providing social guarantees for its
citizens. This means that they may moderate their political

Furthermore, the Japanese are growing more and
more discontent with the role assumed by the United States in the
world and in Japan, in particular. According to some Japanese
political scientists, the term ‘globalization’ is now often used to
mean ‘Americanization,’ because “the United States, as the only
superpower, is advancing only its own interests under the guise of

All these factors give
grounds to believe that Russian-Japanese relations may soon develop
in a somewhat different context and according to scenarios that now
seem unlikely.