Japan Revives Kuril Islands Dispute with Russia amid Ukraine War

NEMURO, JAPAN - AUGUST 29: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this aerial image, Habomai Isla
The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Japan’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday accused Russia’s military of ordering a helicopter to fly through Japanese airspace off the nation’s northernmost island of Hokkaido near islets disputed by Tokyo and Moscow.

“The chopper intruded the airspace above waters southeast of the Nemuro Peninsula, eastern Hokkaido, for dozens of seconds at around 10:23 a.m., prompting the [Japanese] Air Self-Defense Force to scramble fighter aircraft to issue warnings,” the Japan Ministry of Defense said in a statement issued on March 2.

“It is unknown whether the helicopter, which gave no response to the warnings, was for military use,” the Ministry acknowledged.

The alleged intrusion took place near an archipelago administered by Russia’s government but claimed by Japan’s. The island chain stretches between Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and Hokkaido, Japan’s largest island. Moscow refers to the archipelago as the Kuril Islands, while Tokyo has dubbed the islets its Northern Territories.

Russia and Japan have disputed the island chain since the end of World War II. The impasse prevented the two nations from signing a formal peace treaty to end hostilities stemming from the global conflict, which officially lasted from 1939 to 1945. Tokyo maintains that Russia, then the Soviet Union, unlawfully seized the islands after Japan surrendered to end WWII. Moscow says it assumed administrative rights over the islands legally.

Tokyo appeared to use Russia’s recent military invasion of Ukraine as an excuse to publically revive its decades-long dispute with Moscow over the islands on February 28.

“The Northern Territories are occupied by Russia, and we believe that this contradicts the international law, as well as the ongoing attack of the Russian army on Ukraine,” Uyama Hideki, Japanese Foreign Ministry Europe Department director, said during debates in the Japanese Parliament on Monday.

Uyama’s use of the word “occupied” in his February 28 statement piqued the interest of Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency, which noted that “Japanese authorities have been refraining from the term ‘occupation’ in the recent years.”

Tokyo has traditionally described the situation more delicately, according to TASS. The news agency said it was used to hearing Japanese government officials say that “these islands are covered by the Japanese sovereignty” as opposed to referring to them as under some sort of “occupation,” as the word connotes a militaristic action.

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed with TASS in a statement posted by its official Twitter page on March 3.

“We noted that Hideki Uyama, Director General for European Affairs at @MofaJapan_en [Japanese Foreign Ministry], drew a parallel between the special military operation in Ukraine and southern Kuriles’ accession to Russia,” the statement read.

“We point out the obvious revanchist subtext of such statements,” the Ministry added.


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