In Between East and West

Unfinished War? –Why Russia and Japan are still at “the state of war” after half a century

August 6, 2013


        At an international summer program of MGIMO (Russian Foreign Ministry Moscow State Institute of International Relations), more than a few professors mentioned that Russia and Japan are still technically “at the state of war” since there has been no conclusive peace treaty signed after the World War II.  The statement brought an apparent surprise to many participants, although a majority of them were students and specialists in international affairs with specific expertise in Russian foreign relations. Subsequently, a series of heated debates followed. Why have Russia and Japan not concluded any peace treaty? How is there a growing economic cooperation between Russia and Japanese even in the absence of a peace accord? And of course, if Russia and Japan are still technically at “the state of war,” how come is it possible that a Japanese citizen (myself) sitting in the prestigious lecture room at MGIMO that is even annexed to the Russian Foreign Ministry?


Photo: Universida de La Salle


        Many remarked that it is a pity that Russia and Japan do not have any peace treaty. But in my opinion, this is not a pity. This is a shame. This is a shame because the absence of peace treaty is a reflection of external, or international, environment rather than internal disputes between Russia and Japan.  True that the Joint Declaration of the Soviet Union and Japan (1956) Article 1 stated that with ratification of the Joint Declaration, the state of war between the USSR and Japan was officially ended and friendly relations restored.[i] Nevertheless, the same Declaration also called for a continued negotiation to conclude a final peace treaty that resolves territorial disputes on the Northern Islands of Kuril. Therefore, it is not illegitimate to interpret that the full restoration of friendly relations between Russia and Japan has not yet achieved, at least from legal perspective.


        Then there comes why? In my view, there are at least three reasons why we are still stuck in the “state of war” after such a long time despite our historical interactions and geographical proximity.


1.     American hegemony and U.S.-Japan Alliance

In the 19th century, Sir Halford John Mackinder, a British founding father of geopolitics, emphasized the significance of land power and defined Eurasia (mainly the areas stretching from Russia to Central Asia) as “the Pivot Area” to the development of international affairs. His proposition indeed influenced many of the British decision makers and built a foundation of the 1902 British-Japanese Alliance, which was meant to “contain and control” the pivot area (largely belonged to the Russian Empire). After the World War II, Japan became the single invaluable asset for the U.S. in their geopolitical formula to counter global communism threat spreading from the pivot area. The division installed by the Cold War dichotomy and immense pressure from the U.S., either explicitly or implicitly, hindered the subsequent peace negotiations between the USSR and Japan. A salient example of U.S. influence ultimately defining Japanese foreign policy course was the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and the People's Republic of China, which followed the 1972 Joint Declaration of the U.S. and China, and the same declaration of China and Japan also signed in 1972. It took just six years to conclude a final peace treaty with China after a swift U.S. rapprochement towards Chinese government, albeit there were some minor territorial disputes remaining. Many assume that treaties are dictionary-long papers that define every single aspect of the related matters. Yet, for instance, the 1978 Treaty between Japan and China consists of only five articles (not five hundred unlike WTO rules) and these articles are the almost same as the articles of the 1972 Joint Declaration.[ii] Hence, it was rather extraordinary that the peace treaty envisaged in the 1956 Join Declaration was not materialized not even in a decade but also in almost seven decades. It is true that the territorial dispute in the North hindered further negotiation, but one should not underestimate the decisive effect that the U.S. had on Japanese foreign policy making, which is clearly portrayed in the aforementioned Chinese peace treaty example.


2.     Territorial obsession

The history of Russia-Japan peace negotiation after the World War II is akin to the history of repeated disagreement over the Northern territorial dispute. Looking through the official negotiation records, it is clear that there is no discordance in making peace between Russia and Japan to further political and economic cooperation.[iii]  Although both of Russian and Japanese governments emphasize the indivisibility of territorial settlement and peace settlement, I argue that these are two separate issues. If the war between the USSR and Japanese Empire had started over the territorial dispute, it would make sense not to separate the territorial and peace accords. But this was not the case in the World War II. The war was an outcome of overly ambitious Japanese encroachment in the region and the Kuril Islands were not even an agenda of importance. Sure, the islands are potentially rich of natural and fishery resources and Japan is an island nation with relatively small territory considering its vast population. However, we must not dismiss the fact that Japan has become the world second (now the third after rising China) economy without much natural resources and vast territorial spaces.  In my view, Japanese territorial obsession is leading her to nowhere. We must not look for more –as the old Empire did– but rather learn how to strategically utilize what we have got within our country, such as outstanding technology, efficient organizations, and educated labor forces. With a conclusive peace treaty, a vast window of opportunity to further economic cooperation will be opened. We do not need land, we need prosperity. And certainly, peace treaty with Russia is one crucial key to that prosperous future.


3.     Economic distance

Japanese economy has developed and prospered out of a firmly integrated government-business relations and assertive industrial policy. Today many of the emerging BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) furthered the practice, particularly China and Russia, and state capitalism is in a salient surge after the global financial meltdown of 2007.[iv] Despite these structural similarities in Russian and Japanese economies regarding extensive state involvement, they had been so distant for many years during the Cold War confrontation and U.S.-led communism containment. Russian and Japanese economies observed least interaction at the second half of the 20th century, also due to the fact that Russian economic hubs are mainly located in the European part of Russia such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, leaving the Far East region underdeveloped. As there was no active economic interexchange for decades, the absence of peace treaty did not cause any detrimental threat to the economic relations between the USSR and Japan. However, this is no longer the case. Every year by year, economic interaction and cooperation between Russia and Japan have augmented, especially after the breakdown of the Iron Curtain. Russia and Japan today keeps good diplomatic relations; yet, there is a critical difference between good and great relations. Russia-Japan relation has a vast space for further improvement.


Photo: Russian International Affairs Council


        Besides these three major factors, there are also political, historical, and cultural explanations why Russia and Japan has not yet achieved any peace treaty to date. At times when Japanese government faced domestic issues such as recession and demographic crisis, most politicians sought to take tough positions on the Northern territorial dispute (as well as any other disputes with China, Korea, and Taiwan for example) just to show their strong leadership and loyal commitment to Japanese national integrity. Historical and cultural aspects also must not be underestimated. Judging on my personal experience to have lived in Japan for more than two decades, there are quite a few people who believe that Moscow is still the Soviet Capital and call Russia Soviet Union, particularly among elderly citizens. Although slowly diminishing, there still remains an impression of Russia as a closed country with fearful secret agents at every single corner of any street. This is not Russia and it had never been like that, and never will be. It is true that there are uncountable obstacles to realize the dream of conclusive peace treaty, but also there are as many as reasons why Russia and Japan today need each other as a reliable partner more than anybody else. Envisioning a dream of the world federation out of technical cooperation and functional approach, David Mitrany once wrote that “In all societies there are both harmonies and disharmonies. It is largely within our choice which we pick out and further.” [v] The international society is no exception to his inspiring statement. Russia and Japan share disputes and common visions. It is our choice to pick up dissonance and keep running the unfinished war, or to pick up shared values and make centurial partnership out of it together.


[i] データベース『世界と日本』日本政治・国際関係データベース東京大学東洋文化研究所 日ソ共同宣言(日本国とソヴィエト社会主義共和国連邦との共同宣言)Database “The World and Japan” of Japanese Politics and International Relations, University of Tokyo Institute of Advanced Studies on Asia

[ii] 日本外務省 各国・地域情勢 『日本国と中華人民共和国との間の平和友好条約』 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan “1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and the People's Republic of China”

[iii] 日本外務省 各国・地域情勢『日ソ・日露間の平和条約締結交渉』 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan Brief History of the USSR-Japan and Russia-Japan Peace Treaty Negotiations

[iv] Ian Bremmer. The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations. Portfolio Hardcover. 2010. 

[v] David Mitrany. "The Functional Approach to World Organization." International Affairs Vol. 24 No. 2, July 1948, 359. 


Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
For business
For researchers
For students