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Commentary: Habomai and Shikotan Islands unlikely to be returned

  • October 19, 2016
  • , Yomiuri , p. 11
  • JMH Translation

By Shigeki Hakamada, professor and Russian specialist at University of Niigata Prefecture


As a result of visiting Russia this month, I was disappointed by differences between Japan and Russia over the issue of the Northern Territories. In Japan, there is a degree of optimism toward President Putin’s visit to Japan scheduled for December. Pro-Japanese Russian experts whom I met, however, were pessimistic, saying, “Even if Russia decided to return Habomai and Shikotan to Japan, that would be 100 to 200 years later.”


Most worrisome is that Putin’s uncompromising remarks made in recent years have rarely been reported in Japan.


In a meeting with the foreign press in 2012, Putin made alarming remarks: “The 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration did not specify under what conditions the two islands will be returned to Japan, and that if returned, under whose sovereignty the two islands would be placed.” This means that handing over the Habomai and the Shikotan Islands to Japan will not necessarily mean their retrocession to Japan; Russia could maintain sovereignty over the islands.


The president used the same phrase in 2014, and repeated it at a press conference with Russian reporters in China immediately after the Japan-Russia summit held last month. Putin maintains his uncompromising stance on the issue.


There are three conditions to resolve the territorial issue: 1) strong and stable administrations in both Japan and Russia; 2)  a relationship of trust between the two countries’ leaders; and 3) recognition by Russia that resolving the territorial issue will also be of benefit to it. As for the third condition, Russia might perceive that concluding a peace treaty with Japan could adversely impact the country, if, after the peace treaty, Tokyo lost interest in Russia and ceased economic cooperation with Moscow. If so, Russia would propose that the two countries should continue their dialogue, thereby dangling a possible peace treaty as a carrot in front of Japan.


I expect that the territorial issue will remain unresolved after the upcoming Japan-Russia summit scheduled for December. I imagine the summit will raise Japan’s hopes about the territorial issue to some extent, and the summit results will be announced in such a way that they can be interpreted depending on one’s standpoint.


If the idea that “the two islands be returned first after concluding a peace treaty” means that Russia will return the Habomai and the Shikotan Islands to Japan before concluding a peace treaty, and the treaty will be concluded after the reversion of the two other islands – Kunashiri and Etorofu  – is decided, I would completely agree with the idea. The Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, however, stipulates that “the Habomai and the Shikotan Islands will be returned after concluding a peace treaty.” Therefore, it is impossible that Russia would return the two islands to Japan without concluding a peace treaty.


There is an option for the two countries to conclude an interim treaty, but as Russia maintains that it will negotiate with Japan in accordance with the joint declaration, Moscow will never return Habomai and Shikotan without concluding a peace treaty. Whether holding parallel talks is logically possible – talks for  the return of Habomai and Shikotan and separate talks for the return of Kunashiri and Etorofu – is highly questionable.


The territorial dispute over the Northern Territories is not an issue that involves only Japan and Russia. How Japan will handle a violation of its sovereignty is testing the nation at the international level.

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