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EDITORIAL | Abe Should Renew Demand for Return of 4 Russian-Held Northern Islands



Ghosts in the Neighborhood


How long does Russia intend to cling to the state-perpetrated crime of “illegally occupying the Northern Territories” off Japan’s northernmost major island of Hokkaido? This crime dates back to a directive issued by Joseph Stalin, the dictator in the early years of the former Soviet Union.


And why does Japan, the victim of the illegal seizure of the Northern Territories, have to back down from its stance of seeing justice done by ensuring reversion to Japanese rule of the group of four islands: Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai?


Northern Territories Day was observed on February 7. This was its 40th    year, and the first time since the beginning of the Reiwa Era. Although 2020 marks the 75th year after the end of World War II, there have been no signs at all of resolution of the Northern Territories issue, the immediate postwar incident in which Japan suffered major damage to its sovereignty and key national interests.




Stop Beating Around the Bush and Return the Islands


Now is the time for every citizen of this country to look squarely at these daunting, brutal facts, in order to unite in our resolve to make reversion of the Northern Territories a reality.


On February 7, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the 2020 National Rally to Demand the Return of the Northern Territories, held in Tokyo. He expressed his resolve to “advance negotiations with Russia” in pursuit of return of the Northern Territories to Japan.


However, the Prime Minister appeared to be deliberately refraining from using the wording of the four northern islands that “have been illegally seized” by Russia, just like he fell short of using those words in the 2019 national rally. In other words, the Prime Minister came short of using wording expressing a clear demand for return of the four islands for two years in a row.



Instead of trying to gauge the temperaments of the Russians, the Abe administration should ramp up efforts by widely broadcasting its own message, at home and abroad, about outlandish behavior of the Russians. He should have repeated what he said on February 3, during a session of the Budget Committee of the House of Councillors of the Diet, Japan’s parliament: “The four Russian-held islands are those over which Japan has the sovereignty.”


The Prime Minister should have stressed this also in the National Rally.


Collapse of Tokyo-Moscow Deal Should Be Acknowledged


Regrettably, the Abe administration appears to have made a policy shift in favor of a conciliatory strategy toward Russia on the territorial row. This is because Prime Minister Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in their November 2018 summit in Singapore, reached an accord that the bilateral negotiations for concluding a Tokyo-Moscow peace agreement based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration should be accelerated. The 1956 declaration called for return to Japan of only the two islands of Habomai and Shikotan, accounting for no more than 7% of the four islands of the Northern Territories.


The Japan-Russia Treaty of Commerce and Amity that was signed on February 7, 1855, established that the four Northern Territories islands were lawfully under the ownership of Japan. In a Cabinet meeting in January 1981, the Japanese government decided to describe that date as Northern Territories Day.



Historically, the four islands have been part of the territory inherent to Japan and have never belonged to any country other than Japan. Immediately before the war’s end, however, Stalin unilaterally scrapped the Japan-Soviet Treaty of Neutrality and made an armed incursion into the four islands. This took place after Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration for surrender to the Allied Forces. Thus, the Russian occupation was clearly an unlawful taking of the four islands, like looting at a fire.


We can’t help but judge that, since the Abe-Putin meeting in Singapore, the Japan-Russia territorial negotiations have failed for all practical purposes. Russia, once it sees its negotiating partner as weak-kneed, has a strong propensity to take unfair advantage of that partner by adopting high-handed measures.


The Russians now insist, for example: “We refuse to sit at the negotiating table unless you admit that the Northern Territories islands have officially come under the ownership of Russia as a result of World War II.” And “The territorial issue should not be included in our bilateral peace treaty talks, as the territorial issue should be addressed after the conclusion of a peace treaty.”


The Russians are audacious enough to demand that Japan, as a prerequisite for holding territorial issue talks, make a firm commitment in writing never to let any United States military base be located on any of the Northern Territories islands after their return to Japan in the future.



Don’t Take Part in Moscow’s V-Day Ceremony


On the BS Fuji TV program Prime News toward the end of January, former chief of the National Security Council secretariat Shotaro Yachi admitted that the Russian side in the Tokyo-Moscow peace treaty negotiations was asking for Japan to unconditionally accept conclusion of the planned pact without incorporating any reference to the bilateral territorial dispute. Yachi said with absolute certainty that, in order to make headway on the treaty talks, he was convinced there was “no other way in sight” than accepting Moscow’s demand.


While tough negotiations have been undertaken on “joint economic activities” between Japan and Russia, it can be said that the negotiations themselves now constitute a major stumbling block in the effort to resolve the territorial issue. There is at best only slow progress on the envisaged joint activities.


Apparently reflecting the sour bilateral relations, the Russian side recently has seized one Japanese fishing boat after another in waters in the vicinity of the four islands, and has even levied fines on them.



Exhibiting presumptuous behavior, President Putin has sent Prime Minister Abe an invitation to a commemorative event on May 9, which marks the 75th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Germany in World War II. While the ceremony falls on the date when Stalin defeated Adolf Hitler, the two dictators should probably have been held responsible for igniting World War II by their collusion on a Russo-German non-aggression treaty to invade Poland from the east and west almost simultaneously.


The Prime Minister should turn down the invitation flatly. If he attends Russia’s self-serving ceremony aimed at one-sidedly congratulating the Russian victory, it could give an impression of approval to a string of war crimes committed by Stalin, including the seizure of the Northern Territories’ four islands.


National Museum of Territory and Sovereignty


In late January, the National Museum of Territory and Sovereignty, run by the Cabinet secretariat, was reopened in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo. The refurbished museum is seven times as large as its predecessor was in the Hibiya Park location, where it was situated until 2019.


The museum includes exhibits explaining the territorial issue involving the Takeshima group of islets in the Sea of Japan, which South Korea has been illegally occupying, and the issue of the sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea to which China has exerted claims. There are also new materials regarding the Northern Territories islands on display at the museum’s new venue.



Captions attached to the exhibits incorporate the terminology of past official statements, including terms that the Abe administration has tended to refrain from using since 2019. These terms — such as “illegal occupation” and “parts of the territory inherent to Japan” — are presented along with a plenitude of historical materials about the background and the current status of the issue. There are also graphics and photos, allowing visualization of the territorial issue in an easy-to-understand format.  


Immediately after the resumption of the museum’s operations, the Foreign Ministry of Russia summoned Japanese embassy officials in Moscow, protesting that the renovated Territory and Sovereignty Museum “runs contrary to the agreement between the leaders of Russia and Japan for creating a forward-looking atmosphere between the two countries.”


The prompt reaction on the Russian side speaks eloquently as to the accuracy and truth of the contents of the materials on display.


This is an exhibit that should be visited by officials of the Russian embassy in Japan as well as officials of other countries, foreign students, tourists, and anyone interested in gaining a full understanding of the truth and facts of this issue. It should also be visited by the members of Japan’s parliament. Its use should be promoted widely as one of the can’t-miss spots for elementary and other school trips throughout the country.



The Northern Territories sovereignty issue is a problem pending not only between Japan and Russia. It is also one of the unresolved questions of the world, left over since the war’s end.


(Click here to read the editorial in Japanese.)


Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun