JARED D’AGOSTINO WRITES – For the first time in five years, on February 7, 2023, Japan used the words “illegal occupation” when describing Russia’s presence on the Kurile Islands. This is not surprising; Japanese and Russian relations have deteriorated since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24th last year, so the Japanese government felt compelled to step up its aggression—at least verbally. Japan, in response to the Ukraine invasion, has joined numerous other countries in placing economic sanctions on Russia.
The Kurile Islands dispute with Japan goes back to World War II, when Russia, then known as the Soviet Union, invaded and annexed the Islands at the war’s end. Since then, Russia has controlled the Islands and has integrated them into the Sakhalin Oblast while Japan continues to contest that the islands should be returned, and that they are northern Japanese territories.
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two sides were making progress in reaching a compromise. They had even entered into an agreement that enhanced Japanese fishers’ rights and enabled residents of the islands to move between Russian and the Japanese islands freely, without visas. This state of improved relations took place during the administration of Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated July 8th 2022, after retiring as Prime Minister. His tenure was marked by improving relations with Russia and working toward a lasting friendship—and the hope that Russia would eventually return the islands to Japan.
Now those good relations have evaporated. On February 20 Japan’s current Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, vowed at a conference related to the G7 that Japan would lead the world in fighting Russian aggression. This strong statement was tacked onto its unveiling of a 5.5 billion dollar aid package to Ukraine, which quadruples the amount that the country has already sent to counteract Russia’s war effort. The conference, which was held shortly after January 29th of this year, was related to Russia’s refusal to resume annual talks with Japan regarding fishing rights.
Clearly, this dispute is nowhere close to a resolution. The islands have been militarized under Russia, which is now fearful that, if returned to Japan, the United States would station troops there. And despite rising tensions, it appears that neither country is willing to go to war over the islands. Russia most likely doesn’t want another war, while Japan cannot wage war due to Article Nine of the Japanese constitution, which outlaws armed conflict as a way of resolving international disputes.
It seems that even if the Ukraine war were to end soon, there has been lasting damage to Russo-Japanese relations, along with an intensified Russian paranoia towards the United States and its allies, such as Japan. Russia has suspended many of the treaties that were created to solve this dispute and has been deploying troops into the area. With both sides taking major aggressive, retaliatory actions, there is most likely no compromise coming anytime soon.