Japan can only blame itself for failure on the ‘northern territories’.

Sep 12, 2022
Kuril Islands political map. A volcanic archipelago part of Sakhalin Oblast in the Russian Far East. It stretches from Hokkaido in Japan to Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Under Russian administration.
Image: iStock

Japan has protested Moscow’s use of four Japanese claimed islands during its recent Vostok -2022 military exercises in Russia’s Far East and Japan’s northern seas.

One can understand Tokyo’ s frustration. Through intensive talks it could have gained immediate ownership of two of the four islands now in dispute back in 1956 – Habomais and Shikotan.

It lost that chance when its hawks suddenly came up with unreasonable demands for ownership of two larger islands nearby, Etorofu and Kunashiri. Four islands or nothing was their slogan.

As a result Japan ended up with nothing.

In the 1956 peace treaty negotiations with the USSR Tokyo’s hawks continued the dogmatic demand for all four islands.

Moscow continued to say no. As a result Tokyo not only lost the chance to get the treaty with Moscow, but also the enormous economic benefits for Japan’s very isolated northern regions that would have resulted.

With the Soviet Union replaced by Russia in 1991, Moscow in the 1990’s showed some easing of relations by allowing visits to the islands by former inhabitants.

In the early 2000’s some of the more realistic of Japan’s Moscow watchers together with a senior Moscow official tried to get a formula that would let Japan affirm ownership of the two islands promised by Moscow in 1956 and exert some influence over the other two islands in dispute.

For example there could be partnerships in economic development in exchange for some tacit recognition of Japan’s claims and Moscow’s ownership.

But with a change of government in 2001, the hawks moved in again and had the negotiators denounced as traitors to Japan for backing away from the four island demand. One of them ended up in jail.

And now with Japan joining the US-sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, Moscow has revoked the permission of no-visa visits by former inhabitants.

Today Tokyo issues strong protests as Moscow blithely uses those islands for military exercises against Japan.

But it can only blame itself for allowing its pernicious anti-Moscow, anti-Beijing hawk presence to dominate almost every aspect of its foreign policy.

But for those hawks, today Japan could have got to own all or at least some of those disputed islands. At the very least it could have retained the right to have its citizens visit the islands.

Now it has lost all.

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