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Japan, Russia, and the Northern Territories
[2018.11.29]

Here we take a look at the main developments regarding the Northern Territories, islands at the center of a territorial dispute between Japan and Russia, since the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration.

On November 14, 2018, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Singapore and agreed to work toward a peace treaty based on the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration. The two countries are still yet to sign a formal peace treaty to officially end World War II hostilities.

The leaders have arranged to meet again in Argentina at the Group of 20, a summit of leaders from 20 major industrialized countries, which will be held from November 30. In addition, Prime Minister Abe will visit Russia in early 2019 for further talks.

The Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration ended the state of war between Japan and the Soviet Union (now Russia) after World War II and restored diplomatic relations. This was ratified by the parliaments of both countries. At that time though, no agreement was reached over the return of the Northern Territories, stating only that the Habomai and Shikotan Islands would be handed over to Japan after a peace treaty had been signed.

The issue of the Northern Territories is the largest pending concern between Japan and Russia. The Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration is regarded as the base point for those territory negotiations so far. President Putin recognizes the validity of the joint declaration; however, the strategy on how to return the islands to Japan and which country will hold sovereignty are still ”issues for consideration.” Russia is also showing caution about the possibility of US military bases or Japan Self-Defense Forces bases being established on the islands following their return to Japan, meaning the issues of both sovereignty and security are expected to hamper negotiations.

This is a summary of the main developments since the 1956 joint declaration.

October 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration signed by Prime Minister Hatoyama Ichirō and Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin brings about the end of the state of war and restores diplomatic relations. Agreement is not reached on the ownership of the Northern Territories; it is stated that following the signing of a peace treaty the Habomai and Shikotan Islands will be handed over to Japan.
1992 Visa-free exchanges start, and every summer since then there have been several return trips to the islands from Japan.
October 1993 Tokyo Declaration signed by Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro and Russian President Boris Yeltsin states that by listing the names of the four islands and resolving the issue of their attribution, negotiations will continue in order to achieve early conclusion of a peace treaty.
November 1997 Krasnoyarsk Agreement signed by Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutarō and President Yeltsin sets goal of signing a peace treaty based on the Tokyo Declaration by 2000.
April 1998 Kawana Proposal signed by Prime Minister Hashimoto and President Yeltsin proposes to demarcate Japan’s territory to the north of the four islands, but that Russia will continue to govern the islands for the time being.
September 1998 President Vladimir Putin visits Japan. While he states that the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration is valid, he also says that the Kawana Proposal does not match Russia’s thinking at all.
March 2001 Irkutsk Statement signed by Prime Minister Mori Yoshirō and President Putin confirms that the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration is the starting point for negotiations about the islands.
January 2003 Japan-Russia Action Plan signed by Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō and President Putin confirms economic cooperation.
November 2010 President Dmitry Medvedev visits Kunashiri Island, becoming the first Russian leader to visit the territories.
July 2012 Prime Minister Medvedev visits Kunashiri Island again, stating not one inch of Russian territory will be handed over.
December 2016 President Putin visits Japan, where he agrees to launch talks on joint economic activities on the four islands in the Northern Territories.
September 2018 President Putin proposes signing a peace treaty within the year with no preconditions.
November 2018 At the Japan-Russia Summit Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and President Putin agree to work toward conclusion of a peace treaty based on the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration.

Compiled by Nippon.com based on data from the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs websites and various news reports.

Name Area (km2 Characteristics
Habomai Islands 95 Consists of a number of islets.
Shikotan Island 249 Hilly terrain covered in green vegetation (Population: 3,000).
Kunashiri Island 1,489 Relatively flat on the Pacific Ocean side with a natural harbor (Population: 8,000).
Etorofu Island 3,167 Rich in fishery resources, including 20,000 tons in catches of salmon and trout (Population: 6,000).
Total 5,003 Located in the Sea of Okhotsk between Hokkaidō and Kamchatka.

Compiled by Nippon.com based on information from the Northern Territories Issue Association, Cabinet Office website. Population figures are for Russian residents.

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Hatoyama Ichirō [left] and Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin at the signing ceremony for the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration in Moscow, Soviet Union, 1956. © Jiji.)

  • [2018.11.29]
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