Not all of the world’s disputed islands can be found in the South China Sea. On Tuesday, Japan announced it was filing a formal protest with Russia over Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to name several disputed islands in the Kuril chain after prominent figures from Russian history.
The Russians have named the five islands after Andrei Gromyko, a Soviet diplomat, Igor Farkhutdinov, a former governor of the Sakhalin region, Anna Shchetinina, a female captain of a merchant ship, Gen. Kuzma Derevyanko, who signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender with the Allies in 1945 and Gen. Alexei Gnechko, who led the occupation of the Kuril Islands in the same year.
The Russians want to name one of the islands after the general who led their occupation when Russia was at war with Japan. That’s not exactly a subtle message.
The islands are part of a decades-long feud between Russia and Japan, stretching back to World War II. This is not a minor diplomatic altercation. To this very day, Japan and Russia have not signed a peace treaty and formally ended hostilities after the Second World War.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused a stir by pushing for negotiations with Russia to sign a peace treaty just last year. He and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked about the Kuril dispute at a meeting in Japan just two months ago.
The Kuril Islands are the reason for this remarkable delay in putting the 70-year-old war to bed once and for all. Vice News explained the situation last year when Abe called for renewed negotiations:
Russia and Japan have, over the centuries, scrimmaged up and down the island chain; by time the fallout had settled over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviets had scampered all the way down to the very end of the Kurils, poised to begin their invasion of the Japanese home islands with a hop onto the northernmost main island, Hokkaido. Japan gave up fighting before that could happen.
Despite the fairly conclusive end to fighting that went with their surrender to the allies in 1945, the Japanese were pretty adamant about maintaining sovereignty over at least some of the Kuril Islands. The Soviets, recognizing that possession is nine-tenths of the law, essentially told the Japanese to get lost. Now, to be fair, there’s a bit more to the Cold War politics, but the long and the short of it is that the Japanese weren’t in a position to refuse the Soviets. Even so, the Japanese never gave up on the idea that those four southernmost Kuril Islands were properly part of Japan, and not some later imperial acquisition.
With the 1956 treaty, the Japanese and Soviets agreed, more or less, to disagree and signed a statement ending their state of war. A solution to the Kuril Island dispute was put on the “To Do” list they needed to get through before they would sign an official peace treaty, which allowed them to bank their respective diplomatic gains and call it a day.
So, weeks turned into decades, the Soviet Union fell, the Russian Federation rose, and still there was no resolution to the dispute and no peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo. Which, except for ardent nationalists on either side, should firmly plant this in the category of things nobody cares about.
Those nationalists are still ardent. Professor Atsushi Tago of Kobe University explained to CNN that Abe is “supported by right-wing nationalists,” so he “can’t be weak” on the disposition of the Kurils.
Accordingly, Cabinet Secretary-General Yoshihide Suga declared on Tuesday: “This is unacceptable and runs counter to Japan’s position. We sent a note of protest to Russia through diplomatic channels.”
As for the Russians, they want control over the Kurils to ensure the security of the Sea of Okhtosk and to benefit from the sizable oil and natural gas deposits discovered around them. Abe was reportedly willing to accept the Russian missile systems deployed on the southern Kurils but not willing to cede the sovereignty of the island chain entirely.
There was some consternation in Russia at the beginning of February when Japanese media reported that Russia had proposed giving temporary use of the islands to Japan as part of the long-delayed peace treaty, but the Kremlin insisted these reports were not accurate.
“Japan’s position is well known. We highly appreciate the new positive dynamics of our bilateral relations. But still the Kuril Islands, of course, remain the territory of the Russian Federation. So, in this case, it is the sovereign right,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday, after Japan lodged its protest over the naming of the islands.
Last August, a Japanese man working as a translator for a tour group was detained by Russia as he was preparing to depart from the Kuril Islands. The Russians said this occurred because the man was traveling with a suspiciously large amount of cash. Japan protested the detention, and the man was declared innocent and released after a few days. There was some speculation Russia released him because didn’t want his case to interfere with the talks between Abe and Putin over the disposition of the islands.