Behind the negotiations for the Kuril Islands

Japan’s struggle to regain what it calls its “Northern Territories” is complicated by conflicting political realities in the days following WWII.


The U.S. has had an impressive record of changing policies to fit its Cold War strategies. It has helped keep Tokyo and Moscow at loggerheads for over sixty years.

When is a Kuril Island not a Kuril island? When Tokyo so insists. And with Russian President Vladimir Putin due to arrive here in December, and serious negotiations on territory promised, the issue of “what’s in a name” could become important.

Article 2(c) of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty includes the phrase: “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands.” The Japanese government insists that the definition of the “Kuril Islands” in that document did not include the southern Kuril islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri or the smaller neighboring islands of Shikotan and the Habomais. Tokyo says these islands make up what it calls its “Northern Territories,” and that since they have been illegally occupied by Moscow since 1945, the long postponed WWII peace treaty with Moscow can only be signed when their return is promised.

But on Oct. 19, 1951, speaking before the Special Diet Committee on ratification of the San Francisco Treaty, Kumao Nishimura, the Director of the Treaties Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, said: “[B]oth Northern and Southern Kurils were included in the scope of the “Chishima Retto” [Kuril Archipelago] named in the San Francisco Peace Treaty. . . .”

So how did the Southern Kurils that Japan renounced in 1951 come to be replaced by something called the Northern Territories that include Etorofu and Kunashiri, which Japan claims never to have renounced?

Ask Foreign Ministry officials about that Nishimura statement and they will tell you it was a mistake. But could the head of the elite ministry’s Treaty Bureau make such a mistake immediately after the signing of the San Francisco peace treaty?

The ministry also insists the matter was all decided back in the 19th century.In the 1855 Shimoda Treaty between the Tokugawa regime and Czarist Russia, Japan gained ownership of the southern Kuril Islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri. All the other islands further north went to Russia. Then, in the Treaty of St. Petersburg in 1875, Japan negotiated another deal with the transfer of ownership of all “the Kurils” north of Etorofu to Japan in exchange for all of Sakhalin going to Russia. From that it is supposed to follow that since the word “Kurils” was used to describe the islands north of Etorofu, the term Southern Kurils (Minami Chishima) can only refer to islands included in the 1875 handover and north of Etorofu i.e. to the north of Japan’s self proclaimed Northern Territories. Therefore they could not have been renounced in that San Francisco Peace Treaty.

SOPHISTRY? UNDOUBTEDLY. IN ADDITION to the Nishimura statement, there is also the wellknown fact that when Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida signed the San Francisco treaty he complained bitterly about the fact that he was being forced to sign away Minami Chishima. Indeed, he was so unhappy that Tokyo to this day refuses to release the documents sent to the U.S. in protest. If released they would undermine Tokyo’s argument that it never renounced Etorofu and Kunashiri. (A ministry of foreign affairs map at the time showed the two islands clearly included in territory lost under San Francisco.)

Tokyo has more arguments, some slightly more sophisticated. One of them is that the San Francisco treaty does not stipulate to whom Japan is renouncing the Kurils, meaning they do not necessarily belong to Russia. Another is that since Moscow never signed the treaty (it walked out of negotiations), it has no right to claim any of the Kurils anyway.

More logical minded Japanese, both on the communist left and conservative right, realize the contradictions and insist that Japan should blame the U.S. and claim all the Kurils.

Japan has a better position when it quotes the Allied wartime Cairo and Potsdam Declarations on which Japan based its 1945 surrender. Both stated that Japan should only be stripped of territories its had gained from greed and aggression. So supporters of this argument say that since Tokyo gained the Kurils through peaceful negotiations in 1855 and 1875 it should not have been forced to give them up. But Tokyo would then have to explain why it took southern Sakhalin as the prize for its aggressive 1904 war against Russia.

There is another way for Japan to argue its case, but it means having to criticize the U.S. by asking the following questions: Why did Washington take such a hard line in forcing Yoshida to sign away the Southern Kurils? And why did U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles include all the territory Tokyo now describes as its Northern Territories in the definition of the Kurils to be renounced? The only territory he agreed to exclude was the Habomais, proximate to Hokkaido.

TODAY THE U.S. GOES out of its way to insist on the exact reverse of Dulles’ stance; it supports Tokyo’s assertion that Tokyo never renounced the southern Kurils and insists that the Northern Territories claim is totally valid. While the U.S. has had an impressive record of changing policies to fit its Cold War strategies, this one has to be the daddy of them all. It has helped keep Tokyo and Moscow at loggerheads for over sixty years.

It gets even more Machiavellian. Tokyo began talks with Moscow in 1955 with the simple aim of gaining the return of Shikotan and the Habomais islands usually excluded from the definition of the Kurils. But when Moscow finally agreed, Tokyo, under U.S. pressure, immediately upped its demand to include Etorofu and Kunashiri, a move that Moscow quickly shut down. Of the San Francisco principals, only the U.S. endorsed Japan’s action; both France and the UK said it was against the rules (“curious and naïve” was the comment of the UK embassy in Tokyo).

But Tokyo was not deterred. When full scale talks for a peace treaty began in August 1956, Tokyo’s representative, Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu at first insisted on the return of all disputed territory. When at one stage it seemed ready to drop its claim on Etorofu and Kunashiri, Dulles is reported to have intervened to warn that if Tokyo did not maintain its claim to all the Southern Kurils the U.S. might be entitled to hold Okinawa forever. Shigemitsu quickly reversed course. Now, of course, France and the UK are roped in regularly to support that course change.

And so the stalemate continues, with Moscow continuing to insist that at best it will only agree to the return of Shikotan and Habomais, and Tokyo insisting it has to be all the disputed islands or nothing. Under the much underestimated Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, there was a 2001 attempt at compromise when MOFA officials Kazuhiko Togo and Masaru Sato, together with Diet parliamentarian Muneo Suzuki, tried to work out with then Russian Ambassador Alexander Panov, what they called the “two islands plus alpha solution”: Japan would accept Shikotan and the Habomais, sign a peace treaty, and then aim for an ambiguous alpha economic aid, per haps, or more territory. But with the change of government that year, hardline foreign ministry conservatives were able to step in. Rightwing media accused the negotiators of traitorous behavior. Suzuki and Sato were prosecuted on unrelated flimsy charges (with Suzuki spending a year in jail) and Togo was forced into what he calls exile. Panov gave up in despair.

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE clings to the hope that large promises of economic aid and investment will soften Moscow’s stance. After all, did not Putin once say he sought a judo hikiwake (draw) solution? Maybe that means a 50-50 carve up of the territory, or residual sovereignty over the two main islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri. But as anyone who knows Moscow can tell you, Shikotan and the Habomais are the most any Russian leader, even Putin, could possibly concede. Etorofu and Kunashiri have strategic value, Moscow is spending much on their development and their return would create a dangerous precedent for other territory Moscow gained in 1945. For reasons of saving face, Abe has to insist he will get all the islands in the dispute. But Muneo Suzuki, who is close both to Abe and the Russians on this issue, appeared at the FCCJ on Oct. 3 to repeat in effect the failed 2001 proposal. So if Abe agrees will he also be called a traitor?

Ironically, if the U.S. were to admit that it compelled Yoshida to accept Article 2(c) in the San Francisco Treaty, Japan’s position would be much stronger, particularly if Tokyo lifted its ban on releasing documents of that era. It could claim that it was forced to renounce the Kurils and is now entitled to a renegotiation of what in effect was an unequal treaty.

The question is why the U.S. was so determined to pressure Yoshida. One researcher has discovered that a Japan fearful Australia was insistent that Japan be stripped of all disputed territories, clearly defined, to prevent a revived militarism in the future. Others see a U.S. plot: force total renunciation but leave a loophole so Tokyo and Moscow would argue for infinity. In her book Cold War Frontiers in the Asia Pacific, a diligent researcher, Kimie Hara, has given yet another possible reason.

It seems that in 1947 Washington secretly promised Moscow it would follow up on its Yalta promise to have Japan hand over the Kurils provided Moscow accepted U.S. trusteeship over Micronesia in the UN Security Council. But rather than disclose these important facts, Tokyo battles on with its weak, contradictory arguments, clutching at every vague hint of a possible shift in Moscow’s position, and so far getting nowhere.

Gregory Clark is a former Moscow-based Australian diplomat who first came to Japan as bureau chief for the Australian, and writes a regular opinion column in the Japan Times. More information can be found at