Quest for untying the Kurillian Knot 1


   Throughout the history, Japan has been facing territorial controversies with its neighbours. Dating back to Edo period, there have been disputes that did not conclude yet such as Takeshima/Tokdo with WSouth Korea, Senkaku/Diaoyu and Northern Territories/Kurile Islands with Russia. These controversies continue even today, thus tensions created by the disputes have significant effects on Japan’s current relations with its neighbors and Japan’s place on the world in terms of international relations.

    As mentioned above, one of these territorial controversies of Japan is Kuril Islands dispute with Russia. The Kuril Islands, which consist of four separated islands called Southern Kurils by Russia and Northern Territories by Japan, dispute stands for one of the longest disputes in Asian-Pacific region. These four islands are, Kunashir (Kunashiri in Japan)[1], Iturup (Etorofu), Shikotan [2] and Habomai.

     A reasonable recognition of national fringes in the Sakhalin, and their encompassing locale flourished among the Japanese and Russian very little more than one hundered years prior[4]. Today, this dispute emerges from the continuing vagueness in the Yalta Agreement, Postdam Declaration and the Treaty of San Francisco, along with the peace treaty to finish World War II that have not signed neither by Japan nor by Russia, in the surface.

      The questions of this unresolved mystery are:

  • Why has peace treaty still not been signed even after seventy years past from the World War II?
  • What made The Kuril Islands such a paramount asset?
  • Why is Japan so eager for the reversion of these islands? Was it about the resources of the islands?
  • Was it just about a basic power struggle in the Pacifics? Or was it a significant symbol of Japanese imperial power? What was the America’s role in this dispute?


     The Kuril Islands which consist of thirty six islands, stretch between Kamchatka and Hokkaido. These islands occupy about an area of 15,600 square kilometers along with its four largest islands, Iturup, Paramushir, Kunashir and Urup.

      The islands climate is severely opalescent and very famous with its volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, gigantic waves, harsh winter, hermetic summer fogs, mosquitoes and seaweed attacks which make the environment almost impossible for humans to live[5]. However, the islands are crucial in terms of their natural resources for both Japan and Russia. In 1938, the revenue from the fishing industry was 9,000,000 million dollars[6]. Furthermore, the exchange and investment relations between Russia and Japan are increasingly developing as the Japanese need Russian oil and natural gas and mutually, the Russians need Japanese investment and technology. Meanwhile, the Russians have created solid financial ties with China and South Korea which has an indirect impact to the condition of relations between Russia and Japan[7]. Therefore, this situation puts the islands into a very important position in terms of geo-politics or geo-strategy of the islands.

Historical Background

Early History, territory concept of Japan and Russia.

     As Jansen indicated, everything dates back to the beginning of explorations towards the north in Tokugawa period, where limits were extremely undefined. Blurriness of the boundaries turned into an issue for both Japan and Russia as the issue of sway of the Kuril Islands emerged in the nineteenth century, and the open deliberation has fortified since the island chain came into Russian hegemony in the result of World War II [8].

    In his book called The Kurillian Knot, Hiroshi Kimura, first of all asks these brilliant questions, “Who first discovered the Kurile region and the island of Sakhalin? Who first settled them on a permanent basis? When did they come under a specific nation’s sovereignty?” [9] then, gives significant informations about how the northern territories were not clear and out of consideration for both Japanese and Russian until the eighteenth century. He narrates Professor John Stephan who has remarkable researches on early Russo-Japanese relations as,

      “A Russo-Japanese frontier developed almost impercetibly over a period of years, during which national boundaries in the modern sense of the world did not exist. Until the nineteenth century, neither Russia nor Japan had a clear conception of how far its sovereignty extended in the Kuriles.”

   Therefore, both countries became aware of the national boundaries notion as a consequence of external forces, because they did not need to determine certain lines between the inside and outside before the intruders came [10].

    Going back to Tokugawa period Matsume, was the domain of the northernmost Tokugawa feudatory. Because of the cold weather in the north, rice cultivation was impractical. Therefore, Matsuma had decided to trade with Ainu for pelts and fish. Later on mutually, Ainu chiefs had started to come to Japanese settlements to acquire Japanese goods such as sake, rice, tools and cloth [11].

        Ainus were the indigenous people who used to live in northern territories of Japan. In spite of its geographical proximity to Japan, their language’s linguistic structure distincts from Japanese. In terms of language classification, Ainu is best specified as a language-isolate [12]. Moreover, Ainu people look more of European than Japanese. Later on, Ainu people was assimilated into the Japanese society.

       Gradually, this small scale trade between the Ainus and Japanese turned into a larger and more intricated organizations that were funded from Osaka. As a result, northern territories became important to financiers of central Japan. Meanwhile, it was also discovered by the Russians. As Japanese did, they also started to trade with Ainu. In the mean time, both countries were funding geographic discovery travels to the area. In the Japanese side, Ino Tadataka, who was a geographer that had a significant knowledge about mathematics and science, was assigned a task of conducting a geographic exploration by the bakufu. As a result, he produced incredible maps of Japan which took the imperial capital of Kyoto as base for meridian zero. Even in the twentieth century, these maps continued to be used by virtue of its accurateness [13].

       In Russian side, these expeditions began through Peter the Great. Japan’s existence was known by Russia in the mid-seventeenth century by the Japanese castaways. Since Japanese were in sakoku, policies created obstacles to build large ships suited for sailing outside of Japan [14].

        First encounters of these castaways with Russia was by an Osaka merchant’s worker, Denbei. He was given to Peter the Great, further the tsar exposed great interest to him in order to listen Japan from a Japanese. As a result of the information taken by such common castaways, Japan was more attracted to Russia in terms of the region and trade. Therefore, expeditions were initiated, first of which took place in 1771, to the Kuriles [15].

       Through these discovery explorations, Russian inqury to the Kurils and Japan became more purposeful. In 1799, a new company named the Russian-American Company authorized to administer the territory and trade in the region. By this way, it was much easier to carry the commodities on the sea rather than carrying them through the steep landscape of Central Asia which is termed as sea-borne freight by Hiroshi Kimura [16]. Therefore, the company wanted to develop Pacific coast sources in order increase trade with China. Eventually, the tzar Alexander I requested permission of trade from Japan, which was in sakoku at that time. However, Japan reacted substantially vigilant to this suggestion [17].

      As Jansen interpreted in his book called Making the Modern Japan, this reaction of Japanese was the telltale sign of awareness of a young Russian power was coming [18]. Apparently, Japan felt in danger, thus the fear of security and the will of increasing its own people’s wealth made Japan to desire to become as Western Powers.

     Moreover, what made Russian so eager to trade with Japan and discover these territories along with moving towards to warm waters was their crude geographical environment. As Hiroshi Kimura mentioned in his book, characteristics of this geography are, its relentless climatic conditions, unsuitable lands for agriculture. Therefore, in such a cruel geography, Russia afraid of starving its population [19].

      However, as it can be seen, comparisons of Russian and Japanese discovery travels to the Islands chain in order to figure out who discovered the islands first are pointless. On the discover of the Kuril Islands, John Stephan states in his book that,

   “Japanese probably set foot upon there  first, but their earliest landings are undocumented and hence undatable; moreover their documented contacts are limited to the southern islands of Kunashir, Iturup, and Urup. Russians invested the northern part of the chain and were exploring the remainder just as Japanese merchants began to exploit Kunashir.” [20]

       One is waiting to be opened into a world that its world order already determined by the West, the other has been already in this order, are and will be both seeking to secure itself and struggle to show its existence in the world of game which the rules are determined by the West.

The treaties on the sovereignty of the islands and 20th century conflicts

      Kuril Islands were becoming crucial to both Russia and Japan as time passes. First treaty signed between Russia and Japan was the Treaty of Shimoda that signed in 1855. This treaty determined the borders between Japan and Russia, as

     Henceforth the boundary between Russia and Japan shall lie between the islands of Iturup and Urup. The whole of Iturup Island shall belong to Japan; and the whole of Urup Island and the other Kurile Islands, lying to the north of it, shall belong to Russia.

     However, the treaty could not determine the final situation of Sakhalin, thus it caused conflicts between the sailors and merchants of both countries. Instead of Shimoda, The 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg clearly distinct the Russian-Japanese border by returning the Sakhalin to Russia and keeping the Kuril Islands for Japan.

     Deadlock between Japan and Russia stemmed from the affairs of 1945 which correspond to the last year of the Pacific War.

To be continued…

References and notes:

[1] The word Kunashiri originated from the Ainu language, which means ‘Black Forest’.

[2] The word Shikotan originated from the Ainu language, which means ‘Real Town’.

[3] [8] [9] [13] [14] [15] [18] Kimura, Hiroshi. The Kurillian Knot: A History of Japanese-Russian Border Negotiations. Translated by Mark Ealey. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

[4] [5] [19] Stephan, John J. The Kuril Islands: Russo-Japanese Frontier in the Pacific. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

[6] Kapur, K. D. “Russia-Japan Relations: Politico-strategic Importance of the Disputed Southern Kurile Islands/Northern Territories.” India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs 68, no. 4 (2012): 385-405.

[7] [10] [12] [16] [17] Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

[11] Shibatani, Masayoshi. The Languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990

[20] Trenin, Dmitri, and Yuval Weber. “Russia’s Pacific Future: Solving the South Kuril Islands Dispute.”

[21] Photo:



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