Quest for untying the Kurillian Knot 2

Yalta Agreement

First and foremost, Yalta Agreement took place in 11 February 1945 which signed by Soviet Union, the US and Great Britain in Yalta. According to the agreement, Soviet Union would enter into war against Japan after a couple of months later the surrender of Germany. In this context, Soviet Union’s requests were the return of the southern half of Sakhalin Island and  Islands. Whilst these events were happening Japan had no idea and thus, shocked by the Russia’s declare of war. It was an unbelievable betrayal in the eyes of Japan because, Japan was seeking good relations with Russia at that time.

By September 1945, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria, the entire of Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands, and the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai. From the Soviet perspective, the invasion of Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands was justified by the Yalta Agreement. But, from the Japanese side, all of these were a total shock because it did not have any idea of the background of Yalta Agreement and according to Japan, the agreement could not determine its territories since it had not signed it. Though, it had to identify the minor islands.

Actually, the significant point of after war Japan-Russia relations was that toward the end of the Pacific War Japan was left with a completely different memory of the Soviet Union.

The Treaty of San Francisco

The geopolitical environment of Asia-pacific region which has plenty of disputes, still continues to this day even though years passed by the cold war era. In the background of U.S.-Soviet relations and cold war, Yalta agreement changed into San Francisco System which crucially affected the Asia-Pacific international order.

The second defying point of the Russia-Japan relations in the post-war era is the Treaty of San Francisco signed in 1951, without the signature of Russia which was an absolute mistake in terms of today’s relations with Japan, economy of Russia and Russia’s position in the Asia-Pacific region.

Again, the San Francisco Peace Treaty did not indicate the territorial explanation of the Kurile Islands which Japan had renounced, and thus, the uncertainity continued along with the prospone of the territorial dispute to be solved in the future in the Joint Declaration of 1956 and the Memorandum of 1960 in Khrushchev period.

America’s role

If one analyzes it into two distinct periods; before the Yalta meeting, the U.S. State Department arranged an instructions for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Blakeslee Report, which recommended that Japan ought to hold the Southern Kuriles. However, Roosevelt guaranteed the whole tie to Stalin. In fact, it has been recommended that Roosevelt, who did not nearly counsel State Department, thus was not very much educated about the foundation to the issue, or maybe on account of sick wellbeing consented to move the Kuriles in the wrong conviction that Japan had taken them by aggression. In fact, recent concentrates show that Roosevelt knew about the Soviet goal to the Kuriles from a prior time and that his choice was not situated in obliviousness or absence of thought.

Apparently, the U.S. and Britain acknowledged the neccesity of Soviet participation in the war in order to win, thus the Kuriles were a prize to make them participate into a war against Japan. Moreover, Soviet participation was was essential for foundation of the United Nations to build a new post-war world order. Therefore, instead of following the draft arrangements arranged by the State Department’s Far East professionals, Franklin D. Roosevelt utilized his own particular judgment over the Kuriles from his global point of view. For the country’s own benefits, Roosevelt deliberately changed the direction of the negotiations, which was a defying point in the future of Russian-Japanese relations.

Furthermore, in the background of the transformation of Yalta agreement into the ‘San Francisco System’, the U.S. intervention was the main reason for the unresolved dispute until this date.

The U.S. association in the Soviet-Japanese peace negotiations is best known as ‘Dulles’ Warning.’ In August 1956 the Japanese representative Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, was going to accept the Soviet suggest of “two islands return,” and to complete a peace bargain on that premise. However, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles insisted and told Mamoru Shigemitsu that if Japan accepts the conditions, its sovereignty over Okinawa will be endangered. Basically, this opposition had two reasons: First was to guarantee the U.S. control over Okinawa and preventing a rapprochement between Japan and the Soviet Union. The ultimate aim of this U.S. war strategy is to guarantee Japan for the Western alliance and to prevent the expansion of communist bloc.

Even though Japan still could not conclude its territorial dispute that remained from cold war years, many years past since the cold war era and the Soviet bloc’s demision. Rather than struggling to obtain a solution based on the cold war years, both Japan and Russia should come with an utterly new strategy to each other. The new approach will even help to the U.S in terms of its position in the Pacific.

Today’s situation, current developments

Japan and Russia, which are the two nations that took opposite sides with one another in Northeast Asia amid in the first half of the twentieth century, further tested the United States financially as Japan and militarily, ideologically, and politically as Soviet Union amid the century’s second half, have endured to a great extent on that sidelines in the new century. In spite of the immense distinction in terms of its vastness in the region they involve, the shifting levels of monetary and social advancement are clearly similar between the two nations.

Further, some of these similarities as stated in the Trenin and Weber’s paper are,

Japan and Russia have almost equal populations, low and declining birth rates, are in the midst of -admittedly very different but equally prolonged- crises of their respective political and socio-economic systems, and are in clear need of reenergizing themselves. For different reasons, they feel insecure and feel like they are losing out in global and regional competition. Yet, at the same time they maintain a relationship that only guarantees that they miss valuable opportunities to improve their own situations.

Which is an enlightening observation about the current situation of both countries. Perchance, the desire to revive the past once again as the glorious Russia and the empire of Japan as the rising sun of Asia might have made these nations so eager over the territorial dispute.

Moreover, Russia and Japan, have certain crossing geo-political and economic interests aside from their territorial dispute. In East Asia, they both strive to withstand China’s economic growth and North Korea’s nuclear testing and missile launching. Moreover, they both seek to tighten their respective economic and strategic relations with ASEAN. In terms of economy, Japan seeks to access Russia’s natural resources such as natural gas and oil. Whilst, Russia seeks to technologically modernize their industry through Japan and thus, develop the Russian Far East. Sadly, territorial dispute creates obstacle for both countries to pursue their own interests. Untying the ‘Kurillian Knot’ therefore, is paramount in order to achieve expected level of augmentation of economic partnerships as well as political and strategic relations. Though, with an entire new strategy this time which would erase the leftovers of the Cold War era decisions.

However, recently in 2011, Medvedev visited the Kurile Islands as the first president who visited the Islands in its history of the dispute. Surely, this move of Medvedev gained sharp reactions from the Japanese side. It was obviously a provacative move, which contradicts with the usual path of Russia on this issue.

As an answer to the question of why Russia heated up the territorial dispute with Japan, Richard Weitz declares that Medvedev probably figured that the frail Japanese government would not react too firmly to his stiring the debate given Tokyo’s issues with China, North Korea, and possibly different neighbors. Moreover, the move comes during a period when Russia is willing to bring its profile up in East Asia all the more by and large. Furthermore, the Japanese have turned out to be progressively open to growing economic relations with Russia notwithstanding the debate, erasing another conceivable deterrent reason to the visit.

It is apparent that this territorial dispute is the most productive political instrument which is manipulated by Kremlin ocassionaly. Japan’s ready to give everything for those islands image gives Russia a bargaining advantage. In fact, Russia might have used this advantage to utilize its advance technology to develop Russia’s economy.

Furthermore, by the project of reconstruction of the defense infrastructure, and its fleet in the Islands it is apparent enough that, Russia has been fortified its possibility of sovereignty over the islands. Along with the exile of Japanese from the islands by the approval of Stalin, only Russians left, therefore these people feel that they belong to the mainland with their patriarch spirit. This can be seen from a documentary called Kuril Islands: Russia’s Eastern Frontier, which is about the people residing currently in Kunashiri and their way of lives.

Even though these Russian people, once brought to the islands by an order that they were supposed to stay in the islands for five years, take the side of Russia when they were asked, they do not hate Japanese since they shared a common past, worked together, ate together and celebrated together once. Moreover, in the documentary it can be easily seen that japanese commemorative objects such as the graves of Samurai that used to live in the islands, along with old Japanese commodities digged by an amateur Russian archeologist. Nevertheless, although these people respect Japanese culture, grew together with Japanese people, in the -not so possible in the close future- case of sovereignty transform, resident of Kurile Islands will support their mainland and will likely to call upon their updated defense.

In the background of these developments, to answer the question of why the dispute between the two countries has not been concluded even know, Hiroshi Kimura has pointed splendid points: Firstly, the low priority. Japan and Russia was not prior to each other in terms of their foreign policy. Moreover, they lack of long term strategic foreseing towards each other which is a significant disadvantage. Thirdly, the value of the islands differ according to the country. For Japan, even though no Japanese lived in the islands, because of the land area and possible oil reserves, along with fishing opportunities, the four big islands were very important. Russia, if he could pull Japan into the Soviet camp or make Japan more neutral in terms of its security treaty with the US, would have given the islands immediately but it could not managed. The importance of the islands for Russia is more linked to the fishing.


Until now, the geography and geopolitics of the islands have been investigated, further early history and expeditions to the islands have been discussed. Further, treaties signed over the Kuril Islands dispute and twentieth century issues have been studied and lastly, current situation and developments have been analysed.

It should be realized that the development of economic, political and strategic bonds between the two countries need the solution of the Kuril Islands dispute. Paradoxically, untying the knot passes through the same economic and political and strategical issues. This can be achieved because; Russia and Japan need each other in terms of advanced technology, natural resources and oil.

Today, the new talks about the islands should not be over the sovereignty of the Kuril islands anymore but common administration with economic contributions from both countries to the islands and its subsequent benefits to both countries should be discussed.

Rather than prisoner’s dilemma that both Russia and Japan are trying to implement to the East Asian region, they should compromise on mutual beneficial factors which will definitely help to boost both of the countries’ economy, re-energize them, erase the burden of the dispute through all over the years, and further will strengthen both of the countries position in the East Asia- Pacific region against the exponentially growing Chinese power.

Yet, Japan should take careful steps between the U.S. and Russia in order to protect its alliance with the U.S.


  1. “Kuril Islands: Russia’s Eastern Frontier.” — RT Documentary Channel Films.
  2. Hara, Kimie. “50 Years from San Francisco: Re-Examining the Peace Treaty and Japan’s Territorial Problems.” Pacific Affairs 74, no. 3 (2001): 361
  3. Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.
  4. 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.
  5. Kimura, Hiroshi. The Kurillian Knot: A History of Japanese-Russian Border Negotiations. Translated by Mark Ealey. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.
  6. Kimura, Hiroshi. Islands or Security?: Japanese Soviet Relations under Brezhnev and Andropov. Kyoto: Nichibunken, Internat. Research Center for Japanese Studies, 1998.
  7. Stephan, John J. The Kuril Islands: Russo-Japanese Frontier in the Pacific. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
  8. Shibatani, Masayoshi. The Languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990
  9. Tōgō, Kazuhiko. Japan’s Foreign Policy 1945-2003: The Quest for a Proactive Policy. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
  10. Trenin, Dmitri, and Yuval Weber. “Russia’s Pacific Future: Solving the South Kuril Islands Dispute.”
  11. Weitz, Richard. “Why Moscow Has Escalated Its Territorial Dispute with Tokyo.” Pacific Focus 26, no. 2 (2011): 137-64

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