Home / Asia and Pacific / A frozen flashpoint: how will the Kuril Islands dispute affect Russo-Japanese relations following Suga’s election?

A frozen flashpoint: how will the Kuril Islands dispute affect Russo-Japanese relations following Suga’s election?

14 November, 2020

By Luke Austin – Research Assistant

There has been extensive discussion of the challenges faced by Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. One major issue facing Suga which has not been analysed in depth is the ongoing territorial dispute between Russia and Japan concerning the ownership of the southern Kuril Islands, referred to in Japan as the “Northern Territories”. A phone call between Suga and President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin took place on 29th September, during which Suga reportedly expressed his desires for the improvement of overall Russo-Japanese bilateral relations. Speaking with reporters following the call, Suga stated “I want to put an end to the Northern Territory dispute without passing it on to the next generation”. However, resolving this issue, which has for decades impeded the development of bilateral Russo-Japanese relations, is something much simpler to speculate about rather than implement.

The View from Tokyo

Japan’s perspective of the issue has been largely shaped by the nation’s experience during and after the Second World War. This includes the initial occupation by Soviet forces of the Kurils, as well as the detention of thousands of Japanese prisoners-of-war in Siberia for a rather long period after the end of the war – an act seen as constituting a “violation of international law” by Tokyo. A particularly sensitive issue arises when one considers that as many as ten percent of these prisoners-of-war did not make it back to their homeland. Even an opinion poll carried out in January 2019 by the liberal TV network Asahi showed that 41% of respondents deemed the return of all four islands “necessary”.

As a consequence, Japan has taken extraordinary measures to secure the islands’ return. The now defunct Prime Minister’s Office and its succeeding Cabinet has included a dedicated Northern Territories Affairs Administration since 1972. There is also the Northern Territories Issue Association. The Association has even promoted a mascot in the form of an anthropomorphic female tufted puffin called Erika-chan on its official website with accompanying information in Japanese, Russian and English. This reflects the obvious intention of attracting sympathy to the Japanese side in the Kuril Islands dispute through a display of Japan’s legendary cultural soft power, which has been widely considered a powerful instrument of Japanese diplomacy in terms of “Japan’s ability to attract others through its cultural resources”.

Cooperation and Competition

There has long been an economic incentive for Russia to reach a compromise with Japan. Moscow has itself acknowledged the need to economically develop its Far East region, and in the late 2000s, the Kremlin adopted a new agenda which envisioned integration with the Asia-Pacific region through the increase of Russian energy exports to this area. Japan, on the other hand, is notoriously poor in terms of natural resources. Ken Koyama, Senior Managing Director of the Strategy Research Unit in the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ), has outlined Japan’s reliance on energy imports while drawing upon historical examples of how this vulnerability has become apparent, such as the twin oil shocks of 1973 and 1979. Japan has, admittedly, adopted sanctions against Russia in line with the position of the U.S. and EU following the Ukrainian Crisis of 2014. These sanctions, however, were taken up by Japan rather reluctantly due to the geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific and Japan’s strategic interests. Therefore, one can only wonder why such a lucrative partnership has failed to become established.

The Russian position is considerably influenced by the Soviet Union’s experiences during the Second World War: much of Russian society would consider it undesirable for their government to relinquish control over territory gained through their nation’s considerable sacrifice during what they refer to as the Great Patriotic War. This has especially been the case since the early 2000s, with an extensive government-led effort to promote and consolidate Russia’s image as a victor in the Second World War. A study carried out in November 2018 by the Levada Centre across 52 Russian federal subjects found that 74% of respondents opposed the disputed territory’s handover to Japan.

Another incentive is the southern Kurils’ strategic value. It is very difficult to deny their role as a natural barrier to accessing the Sea of Okhotsk – a long-established ‘bastion’ area where Russian Navy ballistic missile submarines deploy on patrol. Following a meeting between Putin and Abe as part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) round of diplomatic conferences held in Da Nang in November 2017, one Russian expert pointed out a major concern for the Russian side in the event of the islands’ handover to the Japanese: “the potential stationing of U.S. military forces on the islands in accordance with the US-Japan Security Treaty”. Given the substantial U.S. military presence in Japan (especially Okinawa), it is perhaps understandable why, from a strategic perspective, Moscow is unwilling to make any concessions to Tokyo. Japanese experts, including Susumu Takai, President of the Security Strategy Research Institute of Japan, have highlighted the implications of the constitutional referendum which took place in Russia earlier this year. The constitution now includes a clause forbidding the cessation of Russian territory, with exceptions for “border demarcation with neighbouring countries”. This makes Japan’s prospects for the Kurils’ return rather bleak.

Potential Paths Ahead

Ultimately, there is one step which, albeit not quite resolving this dispute, would most likely lead to an overall improvement in bilateral Russo-Japanese relations: the signing of a formal Second World War peace treaty. A state of war technically existed between the Soviet Union and Japan for eleven years after the cessation of hostilities until the signing of the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration in 1956. Even then, an excessive development of Russo-Japanese bilateral relations may in turn negatively impact on Sino-Russian relations, which Moscow has done much to prioritise in light of both Russia and China’s deteriorating relations with the U.S.

It is somewhat apparent that the Kuril Islands dispute is taken much more seriously in Japan than in Russia, as the latter holds all the cards: no matter what evidence backs the Japanese claim, the islands are under the de facto control of one of the world’s most formidable military powers, and there is not an awful lot that can be done by the Japanese to hasten the islands’ transfer. If this issue had been taken more seriously in Russia, then Erika-chan and her anthropomorphic peers would have perhaps attracted much more pronounced mockery from the Russian internet community.

What is less amusing, however, is the continuing reliance of Japan on the U.S. for the provision of its security: a rising number of Japanese citizens agree with the notion that this represents an undesirable situation. The decline of U.S. liberal hegemony and the desire for ultimate achievement of a rules-based international order have been offered as explanations for Abe’s somewhat inconsistent and contradictory foreign policy. That is not to mention Japan’s subsequent progression towards a more revisionist domestic policy, with controversies over patriotic education raising concerns of a new generation of Japanese unaware of the darkest horrors perpetrated by their own country during the Second World War. It has been five years since changes to military legislation were brought into effect, permitting the dispatch of Japanese forces to participate in combat missions abroad. Japan’s Ministry of Defence has requested a record-setting budget of approximately $52 billion for 2021, and a fully remilitarised Japan may encourage Russia to consider its traditionally inflexible position on the Kurils’ status. It has been emphasised that Japan does not necessarily view Russia as a military threat, although the consolidation of Russian forces stationed on the southern Kurils does worry Japan to a certain degree.

Should one consider the magnitude of development in Japan’s hard power capabilities in the space of the last five years, during which Japan has put this new potential to the test in peacekeeping operations in South Sudan as well as the recent commencing of the conversions of Japanese ­Izumo-class helicopter destroyers into aircraft carriers, it is not difficult to imagine where Japan will end up by the early 2030s. In 2015, it was noted that Japan’s tradition of post-war pacifism seems to be in recession, and the appointment of a member of the right-wing lobby group Nippon Kaigi to the Kantei will hasten the demise of this norm. Should this be the case, it might not be the potential stationing of U.S. troops on the southern Kurils which would worry Moscow, but rather that of Japanese troops.


Suga seems to be aware of the mistakes that cost his predecessor dearly. The urge to avoid appearing weak to domestic and foreign opponents could encourage Suga to pursue an unprecedentedly hawkish approach. Here we must not forget Washington’s role in shaping Tokyo’s approach to the Kurils dispute.

To what extent Biden will reverse Trump’s foreign policy, which has been described by some as unilateralist while others consider it isolationist, remains unclear. Obviously, Biden is far more multilateralist and committed to refurbishing alliances with traditional U.S. allies, including Japan. It can at least be guaranteed that Biden will “offer rhetorical commitments to NATO” and other regional alliance such as the one with Japan while focussing on domestic policy. At the most, Biden will actively seek cooperation with U.S. allies as part of consolidating a firmer position against both Russia and China. Either of these scenarios may encourage Suga to expect more from the U.S. in terms of putting pressure on Russia and China: it is unlikely that Suga mentioned either the Japan-U.S. Alliance or “peace, freedom, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond” in his congratulatory tweet to Biden and Kamala Harris for no reason at all. Making concessions to Russia over the islands’ status, however, may relieve pressure on Japan in the long run by helping to deter a Sino-Russian rapprochement based on a mutual anti-Japanese position, which could pose dangerous consequences for Japan’s status in the near future, both as a global and a regional power.

Image: Coastline of one of the Kuril Islands (Source: Anatoly Gruzevich, VNIRO Russia)

About Luke Austin

Luke Austin has recently completed his MA with distinction in Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He wrote his master’s dissertation on the levels of consistency and contradiction between actual policy-making and political discourse in the framework of EU-Russia relations. Luke also holds a BA in Japanese and Russian from the University of Leeds. He has previously interned for the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.