The Northern Territories dispute has stood as a main stumbling block in the stalling of bilateral relations between ‘distant neighbours’, obstructing numerous attempts by a succession of governments to conclude negotiations on a permanent peace treaty. Japanese and Russian academics have routinely argued that historical documents support their respective claims to the Southern Kuril Islands, on the basis of ‘prior discovery, prior settlement and prior development.’ In reality, indigenous Ainu populations had long inhabited the islands prior to convergence by foreign parties, and even European explorers challenged early Cossack and Japanese explorers in their attempts to first navigate the region.
In opposing the transferral of the South Kuril Islands to Japan, local government in Sakhalin has often made use of its ‘political card’ and sought to exploit economic aid offered by a Japanese government viewing regional cooperation as a fundamental part in bridging the gap between the two areas. Whilst the collapse of the Soviet Union led to an increase in private-level exchange, due in part to local government attempts to foster closer local relations, deteriorating socio-economic conditions in the Russian Far East and specifically Sakhalin, have meant that a rise in nationalistic sentiment amongst residents has led to an emphasis on protecting territorial integrity. This has been enforced by the publication of biased and inaccurate history curricula by both sides. These factors have helped to diminish the positive inroads made into alleviating Sakhalin’s opposition to Russian territorial concession at a local level, through humanitarian aid and interregional initiatives such as the visa-free programme of the early 1990s.
In Japan, the domestic Northern Territories movement has long failed to fully arouse and rally the unified support of the public. It has been argued that the Northern Territories are of deep symbolic importance to the Japanese. In recent years regional support for the campaign has seen a rise in local groups aiming to spark renewed interest in the issue. It is however too early to say whether this will have any tangible long term effect. Certainly, Russia’s occupation of the islands continues to affect an increasingly aging population of residents who were forcibly expelled from the islands after the Second World War, yet the issue does not evoke the same emotional resonance as other disputes. This is due in part to geographic and demographic factors, but mainly because a failure to enlist the support of local ‘progressive’ forces has meant that vital emotive energy has been drained from the cause and the issue has been left to stagnate. In concluding the dispute, Russia and Japan would be able to create stronger economic ties by transporting oil and natural gas from Sakhalin to Hokkaido, helping to alleviate Japan’s energy crisis and reducing the need to rely on certain politically unstable Middle Eastern nations. If Japan were able to redouble their efforts to develop nuclear power and other alternate sources of energy, this would negate the need to rely on Russia. Russia’s slow economic grown in recent decades has meant that it looks increasingly towards the Asian Pacific, Japan is in a perfect position to capitalise on Russia’s economic crisis.
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of Russo-Japanese relations in the context of a rapidly shifting politico-economic climate in twenty-first century Asia. Japan is now in serious territorial disputes with all of its neighbours: Taiwan, China, South Korea and Russia. For Russia, maintaining stable relations with Japan is essential for a number of reasons. Given a seeming inability to adequately develop its far eastern regions, Russia might be sensible to request collaborative assistance from its technologically superior neighbour. This is not to say that there is any chance Russia would willingly accept such a blow to its pride. With the end of the Cold War, the Russian Far East has experienced a period of stagnation and decline, falling firmly off the radar and into the periphery of Russia’s socio-economic lens. Less than 50km of open water separate Hokkaido and Sakhalin, yet contrasting living conditions highlight extreme polarity. While Sapporo benefits from its reputation as a safe and comfortable modern city, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk suffers from decades of government neglect, crumbling infrastructure and high crime rates, where foreigners routinely fall victim to robbery and murder is not uncommon. The Russian Far East as a whole has earned a reputation for being a lawless region, where organised crime is reported to be influential in most aspects of economic life. The criminal threat is so severe in Sakhalin that in a survey conducted by a local newspaper posing the question ‘who today, to the greatest degree influences the development of events in your oblast’, more respondents cited the criminal underworld than government officials.
Above all, Russia should recognise an important ally in Japan, one who could serve a fundamental role in providing future stability in relations with Europe and the United States, as well as China and North Korea. Were China to become a future threat to Russia, Japan’s allegiance could prove vital if not at least extremely beneficial. The same holds true of North Korea and the worrying implications of a change in political leadership. Arguably this threat has been duly acknowledged by Japan and Russia, the words ‘strategic and geopolitical interests,’ employed by both leaders in the Moscow Summit open to interpretation as a euphemism meaning ‘to deal with the threat of China.’ Mutual recognition of China’s threat is mirrored by a statement made by Putin to Koizumi in his remarking that, ‘we need each other, not in the short term, but in the strategic sense.’ The New York Times notes that China’s perceived expansionist aspirations already disturb the diminishing population of Russia’s Far Eastern region, commenting ‘While Japan was their paranoia of the past, China is their paranoia of the future.’
The Northern Territories dispute stands as a constant reminder of Japan’s humiliating defeat in the Second World War. If Japan wishes to have closure on the painful events of its recent past, it is vital that the issue be successfully concluded, even if this means Japan settling for less than its current demands. Iwashita’s comments encapsulate the Japanese position perfectly, ‘4 or 0, but not 2,’ the worry being that Japan’s unwillingness to modify the terms of its negotiations mean that it could never accept a return of less than ‘the four islands.’ If no settlement can be reached the Northern Territories Dispute will continue to linger as a black cloud blighting future political stability, economic progress and regional cooperation in Northeast Asia for the foreseeable future. In order to avoid this, greater cooperation and partnership between Japan and Russia is needed, against the backdrop of China’s rapid financial growth and military expansion, as well as increasing instability in relations with North Korea.