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EDITORIAL | Russia's Occupation of Northern Territories an International Concern

Russia's illegal occupation of Japan's Northern Territories should not be treated as merely a matter between two countries.



Townscape of Shana, Etorofu Island, Northern Territories, on February 2, 2023. (© Kyodo)

It has been nearly a year since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, an outrageous act against the international order led by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. In the summer of 1945, Russia's predecessor, the Soviet Union, invaded and illegally occupied four islands belonging to Japan under the orders of dictator Joseph Stalin. The four islands, collectively known as the Northern Territories, are located off the northeast coast of the Nemuro Peninsula of Hokkaido

Map of Four Main Islands in Northern Territories. Hokkaido's Nemuro Peninsula is to the left.

To deepen public interest in the Northern Territories issue, the Japanese government designated February 7 as "Northern Territories Day." On the same day in 1855, Japan and Russia signed the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation, which established the borders between the two countries.

This year, Japan is chair of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida must seize every diplomatic opportunity, starting with the May summit in Hiroshima. He should present Japan's concerns and assert the legitimacy of its claim for the return of the islands.

Furthermore, Kishida must emphasize the lawlessness of Russia to the international community. It has violated the territory of other countries in the past and continues to do so today.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addresses the National Rally to Demand the Return of the Northern Territories on February 7, 2023. (© Sankei by Mina Terakouchi)

Kishida's Two Major Decisions

In January, Kishida shared "two major decisions in Japan's foreign and security policy" in a speech at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

The first decision was "the shift in our policy toward Russia in response to its aggression against Ukraine." Kishida added that Japan "put in place strict sanctions against Russia" and was "also among the first in providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine."

The second decision was "the shift in Japan's postwar security policy by formulating the three key documents at the end of [2022]: the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program."

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addresses the National Rally to Demand the Return of the Northern Territories on February 7, 2023. (© Sankei by Mina Terakouchi)

The Survival of Freedom and Democracy

Japan's decision to impose sanctions on Russia in line with the West is commendable. After all, the war in Ukraine is a fight for the survival of freedom and democracy. Similarly, Russia's illegal occupation of the Northern Territories should not be treated as merely a matter between two countries.

If Kishida wants to talk about a change in policy toward Russia, he should also address a change in strategy to internationalize the Northern Territories issue. It is a concern that should be shared by the international community.

It goes without saying that the illegal occupation of the Northern Territories is a violation of international law. Stalin not only unilaterally violated the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact, but also the 1941 Atlantic Charter and the 1943 Cairo Declaration, in which parties agreed not to seek territorial expansion. 

A billboard erected to raise public awareness of Japan's demands for the return of the Northern Territories in Nemuro City, Hokkaido, Japan, on February 3, 2023. (© Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Around the time of the Soviet Union's dissolution, Japan had a track record of getting the Northern Territories on the G7 agenda. In fact, the G7 summits held in Houston, London, and Munich from 1990 to 1993 all released chair's statements or political declarations that supported the resolution of the issue. 

However, since then, Japan seems to have no clear strategy to raise global awareness of Russia's illegal occupation.

President Zelenskyy's Determination

Russia has inflicted horrendous suffering on innocent Ukrainians, causing many casualties and deaths. Nevertheless, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has expressed his determination to overcome Russia's tyranny. He has vowed to "de-occupy all the lands," including the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed nine years ago.

We must not forget that President Zelenskyy expressed support for Japan's sovereignty over the Northern Territories. He signed a decree to that effect in October 2022. Additionally, in a subsequent video message, Zelenskyy that "Russia has no right to these territories." He also said that the world "must finally act." 


And yet, Japan has failed to respond to Zelenskyy's words of solidarity. For instance, a golden opportunity to rally the international community was the Second Summit of the Crimea Platform initiated by Zelenskyy in August 2022. Representatives from some 60 countries and organizations attended the online conference. However, PM Kishida did not mention the Northern Territories issue in his speech. It was a disappointing failure by omission.

Failures of the Past

What should be recalled with equal regret is the G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit held in 2008 during the Yasuo Fukuda administration. 

The then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also attended the summit as Russia was a member of the G8. But Japan again did not raise the Northern Territories at the plenary session. Not only was Japan the host country, but the summit was also held within a stone's throw of the islands. The Japan-Russia summit meeting on the sidelines proved equally fruitless. 

The Kremlin completely saw through Japan's lackadaisical diplomacy. Two years later during the Naoto Kan administration, President Medvedev became the first Russian premier to set foot on Kunashiri island of the Northern Territories.

Northern Territories
Professor Yoshihiko Okabe of Kobe Gakuin University delivers a lecture at the Osaka Prefectural Convention for the Northern Territories Day on February 7, 2023. The slide says, “In front of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv on February 7. Ukraine is the only country in the world where there are protests for the return of the Northern Territories.” (© Sankei by Naoya Nagata)

Making a New Start

To break with these past failures, Japan must respond to Ukraine's solidarity with concrete actions. For example, the Kishida administration could host international conferences and symposiums on the theme of reclaiming the four islands. 

Russia has maintained a hardline stance. The current Putin administration amended Russia's constitution to ban the cession of territory. Since invading Ukraine, the Kremlin has unilaterally suspended peace treaty negotiations and visa-free exchanges with Japan. It has also been conducting large-scale military drills on Kunashiri and Etorofu islands of the Northern territories.

But the protracted war in Ukraine has deepened Russia's international isolation and exhausted its domestic economy and society. Quite possibly, the country will head for a national decline, going the way of its predecessor.

How will Japan prepare for that window of opportunity to take back its territory? By developing a strategy that considers every possible eventuality.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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