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EDITORIAL | Northern Territories: Japan Needs More Aggressive Diplomacy

Russia illegally occupies lands belonging to both Japan and Ukraine, including the Northern Territories in Hokkaido, which Soviet troops grabbed in 1945.

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The Northern Territories stretching off Cape Nosappu (lower left) on the Nemuro Peninsula, Hokkaido. The Habomai Islands (center), Shikotan island (upper right), and Kunashiri island (far left). Etorofu island is faintly visible in the far right. (© Kyodo)

February 7 was Northern Territories Day. The month also marks nearly two years since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. 

Four islands off Hokkaido comprise the Northern Territories: Kunashiri, Shikotan, and the Habotai group. They are indisputably Japanese territory. Nonetheless, as World War II was drawing to a close in the summer of 1945, Soviet forces grabbed these islands in flagrant violation of the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Treaty, like an opportunistic thief.  And Russia continues to illegally occupy them to this day. 

In a similar fashion in Ukraine, the Russian military has invaded and occupied sovereign territory belonging to its neighbor. The nature of the problem is exactly the same for the Northern Territories and Ukraine. 

If Japan and Ukraine are to regain their lost lands, they must intensify their solidarity. They must stand together against the aggressor, Russia. 

PM Fumio Kishida and Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa attend the national convention demanding the return of the Northern Territories. On the right is Yasuko Kodama, a former resident of the Habomai Islands. On February 7, 2024 in Tokyo (© Sankei by Yoshinori Saito)

Sanctions Are Not Enough

In his recent policy speech to the Diet, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, "We will continue to strongly promote sanctions against Russia and support for Ukraine." Among other things, he added, "Japan-Russia relations face difficult conditions. But Japan remains firmly committed to resolving the territorial issue and concluding a peace treaty." 

What the Kishida administration needs to do to respond to these "difficult conditions" in a manner that goes beyond sanctions and aid. It is also imperative that we strongly communicate both at home and abroad the truth that Japan, just like Ukraine, is a victim of invasion. And that Japan's sovereign territory has been illegally seized by Moscow. 

In October 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a presidential decree which stated, "Russia has absolutely no right to the Northern Territories. Now is the time to act." 

This strong expression of support for Japan's position failed to draw any reaction from Prime Minister Kishida. That alone showed that Japanese diplomacy was sadly lacking. Especially in terms of a strategy to internationalize the Northern Territories question. 

PM Fumio Kishida gives a speech at the national convention demanding the return of the Northern Territories on February 7, in Tokyo. (© Sankei by Yoshinori Saito)

Russia's Aggressive Words 

Just in January, Putin indicated his intention to visit the Northern Territories. "I most certainly will visit the Kurile Islands," he declared. Russia claims that the "Kurile Islands" include the Northern Territories and the Chishima Island chain.

In response to Kishida's Diet address, Dimitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the National Security Council of Russia, posted a social media message that read: "The feelings of the Japanese people towards the Northern Territories are of no concern whatsoever to us. 'Samurai' who are saddened by this fact can go use the traditional method of suicide. That's right, seppuku!"

The statements by both Russian leaders mocked Japan and are outrageous. 

According to the most recent Cabinet poll of public opinion regarding the Northern Territories, 47 percent of Japanese young people (ages 18-29) answered that they "did not know" about Russia's illegal occupation of the Northern Territories. 

Marking Northern Territories Day provides us with an opportunity to remind ourselves of how Japan's sovereignty continues to be violated. Now we must translate that awareness into action to realize the return of the four islands. 

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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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