In Between East and West

Over the Sixty-Eight-Year Battle of Prestige –Revealing Hidden Dimensions of the Southern Kuril Territorial Dispute Settlement

September 11, 2013


        From 1945 to date, the southern Kuril Islands (particularly Iturp, Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habamai) have been a very frontier of Russo-Japanese battle of prestige. Over the last sixty-eight years, uncountable proposals to resolve the dispute have emerged from both sides; nevertheless, they all were torn apart by political unwillingness. Most recently, Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun reported on August 9 that the negotiation over the territorial dispute settlement would be reopened on 19 August in Moscow, where Foreign Counselor[1] Shinsuke Sugiyama of Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mr. Igor Vladimirovich Morgulov of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are said to engage in a series of new negotiation rounds.[2] However, the course of negotiation remains undetermined and it is not clear when and how the negotiating parties can at last agree to the mutually acceptable solutions.


        Putting aside Kuril’s geographically advantageous location and its potential of natural resource development, the Kuril conflict is a salient example that displays rationality is not always a dominating force in international relations. In fact, Russia and Japan are believed to have lost many golden opportunities of mutually beneficial cooperation over the single dispute. In my view, there is no practical sense in keeping this conflict open after nearly seven decades of political unwillingness; but, it is national prestige of both countries and fear of political backfire that keep the irrational fire fueled.[3] The recent revival of the negotiation process is believed to be reflecting on newly reinforced Abe Administration’s commitment to the final resolution; yet, today’s new political and economic dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region add further complexity to the already complicated issue. Therefore, this article primarily aims to summarize some of the key resolution proposals to provide a simpler lens of comparison. Based on the analysis of these proposals, I will further identify key regional trends that should be considered, both by Russian and Japanese sides, in finding out an ultimate resolution outline.


        In short, there are three major aspects in the dispute settlement between Russia and Japan, which are; territorial redistribution, timing of returning islands, determination of sovereignty and nationality. The territorial redistribution rules which part of the four islands Russia keeps, while the timing determines when the redistribution (returning of some Kuril territory to Japan) occurs if there is any. Lastly, the matter of sovereignty and nationality (mostly for Russian nationals residing on the islands) should be discussed separately from territoriality. Judging from these three criteria, there has been at least, but not only, six major proposals made by either Russian or Japanese side during the last seven decades.





Scenario 1 –Japanese Official Proposal

The Japanese official proposal claims to be returned all the four islands to Japanese sovereignty simultaneously, as it used to be prior to 1945. Principally, Russian residents on the islands retain their nationality and citizenship, but they would be considered to be foreign residents over Japanese territory. Yet, Government of Japan is ready to flexibly negotiate for additional arrangements (such as special treatment of Russian citizens including double-citizenship regime).


Scenario 2 –Russian Official Proposal

Based on the 1956 Joint Declaration, Russian government repeatedly offered to Tokyo—in 1993, 2001, and 2006—to solve the issue by the 2-2 proposal where Shikotan and Habamai Islands to be returned to Japan immediately and Russia maintains Iturp and Kunashir islands. [4] The two island, however, together represent only 7 percent of the area claimed by Japan since Habamai Islands are basically a collection of rocks.[5] This is a preferential settlement to the Russian side (Russia keeps 93% of the disputed areas) but unsurprisingly, Tokyo has repeatedly refused the proposal.


Scenario 3 –Gradual Return

Shikotan and Habamai Islands to be returned to Japan immediately, and Russia maintains Iturp and Kunashir islands for a predetermined period. In a near future, all of the four islands and their sovereignty will be fully returned to Japan. Dmitri Trenin and Yuval Weber of the Carnegie Moscow Center have outlined this proposal in detail on their latest working paper “Russia's Pacific Future -Solving the South Kuril Islands Dispute” where they suggest that Russia and Japan should also establish a joint economic zone covering the four South Kuril Islands run by a joint authority of Russia and Japan administering a distinct economic and legal regime.

As a Russian former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov also supported a vision of a joint economic zone covering the South Kuril Islands, an emphasis of this proposal is the package of the political and economic deals, including committed Japanese public and private investment on the Kuril Islands, full-demilitarization of the area, and free movement of Russian and Japanese citizens in the area. According to their proposal, at the end of a fifty year period Iturup and Kunashir will be handed over to Japanese sovereignty, while “the joint economic regime will continue for another fifty years and Russian permanent residents will be free to stay, enjoying the right to hold dual citizenship of Japan and Russia.”[6]

Historically, Japan has claimed to maintain flexibility on how and when these four islands are returned, as long as the four islands are promised to be handed over to Japan. Former politician from Hokkaido Muneo Suzuki and former Japanese diplomat and professor Kazuhiko Togo have also expressed their support to a similar plan. The former prime minister Yoshiro Mori has suggested the same plan to the Kremlin yet his proposal was refused in the early 2000s by the first Putin administration. But historically, the U.S. has returned three islands over time to Japanese sovereignty; Amami Islands in 1953, Ogasawara Islands in 1968, then finally Okinawa Islands in 1972.


Scenario 4 –Russian Kuril

All islands to be maintained by Russia, as mentioned in the San Francisco Peace Treaty and no change takes place from the current state. This proposal reflects the settlement agreed on the San Francisco Peace Treaty by which Government of Japan claimed the withdrawal from all Kuril Islands. However, since the Government of the USSR was not present at the conference thus the treaty cannot be considered to be in effect to date. The proposal is attractive for the Russian side to keep the status-quo, yet it is highly unlikely that the Japanese side to accept the deal.


Scenario 5 –Three for Japan, One for Russia

Iturp island to be maintained by Russia, and all the other islands to be returned to Japan. This proposal gives Japan approximately 37% of the four Kuril Islands, while Russia maintains the largest island of Iturup, and border is to be drawn between Kunashir/Shikotan and Iturp. The deal can be seen as fairly equal although Russia retains 63% of the total surface of the Kuril Islands. However, further exploration of fishery and mining resources might reveal the potential loss for Russian side.


Scenario 6 –Even Split

75% of Iturp island to be maintained by Russia, and the rest of 25% of Iturp and all the other islands to be returned to Japan, the borderline would be drawn on the West side of Iturp. This proposal represents a 50–50 split modeled on the 2004 border settlement between Russia and China. The resolution would give Japan the three islands plus a 25% of the biggest island, Iturup. It is likely that Japan would agree with this settlement, yet, potential loss for the Russian side is even larger compared to the scenario 5, let alone the lost opportunity of fishery and mineral resources.



        There are other several alternatives to the aforementioned six proposals, yet none of them convey practical significance to date.


Scenario 7 –Co-Governing Territory of Russia and Japan

To establish autonomous governing region and both Russia and Japan enjoys sovereignty over the islands.


Scenario 8 –United Nations Trustee Committee Territory

UN-trusted territory and fishery and mining rights are equally enjoyed by Russia and Japan.


Scenario 9 –All Kuril Islands (until Kamchatka and even Sakhalin) to Japan

Japanese Communist Party claims that all part of Kuril Islands, both north and south, must be fully returned to Japanese sovereignty.



        Needless to say, each of the six major proposals has its own advantage and fallbacks. The first and fourth scenarios of either maintaining the current status-quo or returning all the islands to Japan are very unlikely to be a final resolution, let alone the seventh, eighth, and ninth scenario that are nothing more than political nonsense. As Tokyo has repeatedly refused over time, the second scenario to hand over two of the four islands (approximately 7 percent of the areas Japan claims to regain) would never be accepted. By the same token, the scenario 6 seems also very inconvenient since it would involve newly established land border on the Itrup island, which may result in further complexity and more administrative expenditure. Therefore, the third proposal of Carnegie Moscow Center scholars and the fifth proposal of three for Japan, one for Russia might be more feasible. Nonetheless, we also must be aware that there are several more hidden dimensions to the territorial dispute that are not discussed in any of the aforementioned proposals. 





1.     Impacts of the Kuril resolution on other Japanese territorial disputes


        First and foremost, Tokyo is ever more cautious of new developments in the Kuril negotiation today, since its outcome is expected to have a decisive influence on the courses of other territorial disputes, particularly the Senkaku Island with China and Takeshima Island with South Korea. While China is actively augmenting its presence and assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region, anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea is also being fueled recently. In my view, Chinese and Korean nationalistic stances in recent months reflect nothing more than a relatively unstable transition in their domestic politics. This is a recurring trend in international relations; when a new administration comes to power or existing administration is swiftly losing popularity, it has a large incentive to invoke outside dispute to unite inside.[7] Recent behaviors of China and South Korea are a salient example of this “Falkland phenomenon.” In fact, Japanese Prime Minister Abe must be very pleased to witness these provocative attitudes in the region, since he is now equipped with popular legitimacy and rational explanation to realize his –and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s – long-waited dream to amend Japanese pacifist constitution and reorganize Japanese Defense Forces into national defense army. It is very unlikely that Abe Administration makes apparent compromise with Russian side over the Kuril dispute, because this would weaken his nationalistic claims and may also trigger more assertive responses from China and South Korea. Therefore, any resolution to the Kuril dispute should present a creative approach that does not entail any winner or loser; the dispute settlement must be displayed as a collective achievement of diplomatic communications and political dialogue.


        In this sense, the final resolution also should be presented as an extension or implementation of the 1956 Joint Declaration with minor modifications to reflect current state of affairs. Japan is expected to be reluctant to accept any new resolutions, which might signal China and South Korea that Japan is ready to make compromises. Instead, if the Kuril dispute is resolved rigorously based on the previous historical agreements, Japan gains legitimacy to claim that the new agreement with Russia is nothing but an extension of previously agreed terms, hence, the case is fundamentally different from Senkaku/ Takeshima where no such precursory documents exist. Whatever the resolution will be, it is imperative that Russian side pays its utmost attention to the other contemporary disputes in the region that sets course of Japanese diplomacy. Any ignorance of this paramount consideration would result in detrimental negotiation failure. Preferably, Russia through its extensive diplomatic channels can also urge China and South Korea not to provoke Japan when the resolution over the Kuril dispute is to be signed. This pledge would provide a paramount incentive for Japan to make a larger political compromise on the Kuril redistribution with Russia.  



2.     Unlashing the assumption of unitary actor


        Any rational negotiator should understand that the conventional assumption of nation as unitary actor does not apply to this Kuril disputes. Kuril dispute involves a variety of actors with highly divergent interests, and any final resolution would be a consolidated product of these different stances and preferences. On the Russian side, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia remains a chief negotiation party succeeding the conflict from the Government of the USSR. In addition, local government of Sakhalin Oblast may present different preferences as the de-facto administrator of the Kuril Islands. Finally, a major opposition to revise the status-quo comes from Russian activists residing on the Kuril Islands. By contrast, Japanese side is slightly more complicated. As Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan is a chief negotiating party, local government of Hokkaido Prefecture has also a stake in the negotiation as assumed Japanese administrator of Kuril Islands if any transfer of territory occurs. Furthermore, Independent Governmental Organization Northern Territories Issue Association, a subsidiary body of Japanese central government dealing with the Northern education programs, presents a highly nationalistic viewpoint through its education programs and information portal, which basically defines the Soviet Union (and today’s Russia) as aggressive invader of traditional Japanese territory. Similarly, the Japanese League of Residents of Chishima and Habomai, a representative body of the former Japanese residents on the Kuril is the largest advocate of Kuril’s full return although many of them have passed away already.


        Involving these multiple actors, the ultimate course of Kuril negotiation will be shaped and determined by the mixed preferences of participants and advocates. Interestingly, preferences of Tokyo or Moscow do not always coincide with those of their domestic partners. For example, while Japanese central government claims full return of four islands, I am not sure if the local government of Hokkaido wants the idea to be realized, since they would face such a daunting task of establishing new administrative sphere where no Japanese language is spoken. Similarly, Russian activists on the Kuril may amend their position flexibly if dramatically ameliorated quality of life, with newly built infrastructure and deference of Russian culture, is promised with introduction of Japanese governance in the region. Simply, all of the major proposals fallaciously assume the unitary nature of each government and do not take into account these divergent and often conflicting interests of different domestic actors. Moreover, any proposal of co-governance or joint economic zone should be aware of its potential fallacy. As many of contemporary literature describe, Russian governance is entrenched by an endemic problem of multiple regulators; this is precisely why Russian governmental efficiency is claimed to be of an abysmal quality. Therefore, the feasibility of co-governance and joint economy zone remains very unpromising since such a plan would add further, if not catastrophic, complexity to the already existing complication of the Russian system of governance.




3.     Growing Japanese brain out of its territorial obsession


        An argument that Japan needs more land (while Russia enjoys the world’s largest territory) is nothing more than a careless ignorance of modern industrial history. In my view, it seems that Japanese people has totally forgotten that Japan has become the second largest world economy after the World War II without having none of these northern islands, or territorial superiority, or rich endowment of natural resources. An incorporation of relatively isolated, underdeveloped, and Russian speaking territories would add marginal benefits to already stagnating Japanese economy. True, natural resources and fishery endowments around the islands may bring certain tangible profits to Japan. However, Japan should not forget that territory is expensive. If any of the Kuril islands were to be incorporated into the sphere of Japanese governance, it would entail a tremendous developmental expenditure and governmental responsibility to realize minimum standard of life detailed by the current Japanese constitution. Iturp, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habamai Islands together make total 5,036 km2.[8] It appears that a few Japanese knows that this would be more than double size of total Okinawa islands (2,277 km2) and even Tokyo metropolitan area (2188 km2). [9] In fact, the four islands alone can form a 29th largest prefecture out of the current forty-seven Japanese prefectures. Furthermore, a prefecture of the least population (Tottori Prefecture with around 578,000 residents) has annual expenditure of approximately $3.3 billion. Estranged by two-decade recession, global financial meltdown, exploding nuclear reactor, tsunami reconstruction, plus recently celebrated Tokyo Olympics 2020, I am not convinced that Japan is financially sound or politically ready to make new territorial incorporation of a large scale.


        Some argue that successful reintegration of Okinawa from the U.S. occupation sets prominent record of Japanese success story to manage returned territories. To my mind, this argument omits too many significant considerations. First, Okinawa maintained Japanese residents and Japanese infrastructure even under American occupational administration. In contrast, 17,291 Japanese residents were living on the Kuril islands until 1945 (of whom 7,105 is still alive on 28 August 2013) but currently none at the moment.[10] Today, all the population living on the islands is ethnic Russian. As Japan remains culturally very closed country with no previous experience of multicultural administration (instead with a rich history of forceful assimilation), governance of Kuril islands with overwhelming Russian language speakers would be a detrimentally daunting task. This is not only difficult but also financially very tremendous issue. Second, expelling Russian population from the islands is not even an option considering contemporary development of international law (that condemns forced migration) and also Russian foreign policy’s explicit priority to protect Russian nationals abroad. Therefore, in case Japan ever regains the four islands, certain increase in tax collection or deterioration of national financial position would be necessary and inevitable. While a majority of Japanese citizens expressing grave concern over Prime Minister Abe’s attempt to gradually rise consumption tax from 5% to 10%, it seems that a very few Japanese understand economic meaning of new territorial incorporation. This is true particularly considering the underdevelopment of Pacific Russia, whose financial and tax contribution would definitely remain marginal to offset administrative expenditure.


        In conclusion, all of the six major proposals that are expected to be a basis of ultimate resolution carelessly omit considerations of regional rivalry dynamics, multiple stakeholder issue, and expected administrative deficiency. Whilst Russia needs to clearly express its understanding of Japanese fragile situation over other territorial disputes, Japan seems ignorant or unprepared of its expected administrative responsibility. An era of expansionist imperialism when the methodology of dividing territories was a paramount concern for negotiating parties has long gone. Today’s territorial negotiation amid ever increasing global and regional interdependence comes with more agendas on and under the negotiation table. Although I acknowledge the utility and value of existing settlement proposals, the ultimate resolution must be a comprehensively integrated package of political, economic, diplomatic, legal, administrative, and cultural aspects. Unlike Senkaku or Takeshima Islands, the southern Kuril are residential territories with rich history and dynamic cultural interaction. Hence, any narrow perspective to define the dispute in an old-fashioned, imperialistic, winner-takes-all mindset dooms to fail epically. And unfortunately, this represents our sixty-eight year of no progress over the battle of prestige that largely subordinated interests of the region. Today, our leaders must be called for growing out of their outdated brains, so that the region can finally live in its full potential with prosperous harmony.


[1] Foreign Counselor is a position within Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that directly reports to the Administrative Vice-Minister who sits on the highest of the Japanese foreign ministerial hierarchy.

[2] Asashi Shinbun, “北方領土交渉、19日にモスクワで再開 日ロ次官級 (Northern territorial negotiation will be reopened in Moscow on 19 August by the deputy heads of Russia and Japan),” August 9 2013, Accessed on

[3] This is not to disrespect the fundamental rights and sentiments of former and present residents on the islands, either Russian or Japanese. Instead, I must emphasize the desperate need to rationally reconsider the future of the islands while putting aside emotional arguments and irrational short-termism.

[4] Dmitri Trenin and Yuval Weber, “Russia's Pacific Future -Solving the South Kuril Islands Dispute,” (Carnegie Moscow Center, Moscow: 2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The U.K.-Argentina War of Falklands under Thatcher Administration is a historical case where Argentinian government intended to reinforce national unity and political popularity through the irrational invasion of Falkland Islands.    

[8] Geographical Information Authority of Japan, accessed on

[9] Prefecture of Tottori Statistics, accessed on

[10] Northern Territories Issue Association, accessed on


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