Russia’s Claim to Sovereignty over the Four Northern Islands

1. Introduction

The Northern Territories issue is a dispute between Japan and Russia concerning territorial sovereignty over the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, the Habomai Islands and Shikotan (the so-called four Northern Islands). Although Russia occupied these islands at the end of World War II, Japan regards them as its own inherent territory and calls for their return – a return, to be accurate, not of territorial sovereignty but rather a restoration of administrative rights, on the premise that territorial sovereignty still resides with Japan. Nevertheless, although Russia has come to acknowledge that a territorial issue exists, it has not changed its position that the four islands are Russian territory.

Generally speaking, in any dispute there are some grounds (justified or not) for the claims of both parties, and the first step in resolving the issue is to know the other side’s contentions. This paper will present Russia’s claim to territorial sovereignty over the four Northern Islands from this perspective and comment on several of the disputed points involved.[1]

2. Russia’s Sovereignty Claim

Published documents useful for understanding Russia’s territorial claim to the four Northern Islands include letters signed by Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the discussions of the vice-ministerial-level working group on a Japan-Soviet peace treaty. The former date to 1961 and are recorded in Hoppō ryōdo mondai shiryōshū (Collection of documents on the Northern Territories issue), edited by the Nampō Dōhō Engokai (Assistance Association for Okinawa and Ogasawara Islands). In August 1961, Premier Khrushchev of the then Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) sent a personal message to Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato on the occasion of the visit to Japan by Anastas Mikoyan, the Vice Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Prime Minister Ikeda referred to the territorial issue in his reply and stated that territory inherent to Japan must be returned. This led to several exchanges on the territorial issue in letters between the two leaders up until December of that year.[2] The working group in the latter case was established pursuant to an agreement at the time of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze’s visit to Japan in December 1988; as part of the preparations for Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Japan, it met seven times before the April 1991 summit meeting. In his book, Alexander Panov (Александр Н. Панов), a former Russian ambassador to Japan, presents the discussions at that time.[3] The contents of the former and the latter are basically the same. The following is a quotation from the part of Ambassador Panov’s book that deals with the Russian (Soviet) claims.

… The argument of the Soviet side in the discussions of the working group was centered on the thesis that (1) the starting point ought to be the outcome of World War II

The Soviets stated that, because of Japan’s treacherous attack on Russia in 1904 and its seizure of the southern part of Sakhalin Island under the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905, (2) Japan had forfeited the right to refer to earlier Russo-Japanese treaties, including the Treaty of 1855.

In connection with the Yalta Agreement of 1945, the Soviet side contended that Japan is obligated to comply with it unconditionally in light of the standards of international law because, by signing the Instrument of Surrender on September 2, 1945, (3) Japan also accepted all the conditions arising from the Allies’ agreements, including the Yalta Agreement, that exist in regard to this point. (4) The Allied powers did not consider the handover of the Kurile Islands to the Soviet Union in compliance with the Yalta Agreement to be a contradiction of the Atlantic Charter of 1941 or the Cairo Declaration of 1943. The said Charter and Declaration contain commensurate provisions to the effect that the Allies “seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other” and “have no thought of territorial expansion.” (5) The Allied powers considered the handover of the Kurile Islands to the Soviet Union to be a historically just act and gave it legal confirmation under the Yalta Agreement.

Evidence was cited that Japan had systematically and purposefully violated the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact of 1941 (assisting Nazi Germany in its war with the USSR by making preparations for war against the Soviet Union in Manchuria, providing Germany with political, economic, and military intelligence on the Soviet Union, firing on, seizing and destroying Soviet cargo ships by Japanese warships, closing straits adjacent to Japan to Soviet ships, etc.) Due to these (6) treaty violations by Japan, the Soviet Union had every reason to refuse to adhere to its obligations under the Pact. The ruling of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in 1948 states, “Japan was not sincere in concluding the Neutrality Pact with the U.S.S.R., but considering her agreements with Germany more advantageous, she signed the Neutrality Pact to facilitate her plans.”

In regard to the San Francisco Treaty, the nonparticipation of the Soviet Union in the Treaty does not diminish the fact that, under the terms of the Treaty, Japan renounced its rights, title and claim to the Kurile Islands. The Soviet side contended that this fact is in accordance with international law, (7) has an absolute character and extends beyond the signatories to the San Francisco Treaty.

Against the Japanese side’s claim that the “four islands” are not included in the configuration of the Kurile Islands, the Soviet side refused to accept this on the grounds that (8) the documents which determined the attribution of the Kurile Islands (the Yalta Agreement and San Francisco Treaty) do not specifically divide them in this way.

The Soviet side did not agree with the Japan side’s interpretation of the Gromyko-Matsumoto letters. The Soviets emphasized that these notes were exchanged in a context in which the two sides had decided not to mention the territorial issue in the Joint Declaration, and that the issue would be discussed after the Declaration had been signed. However, Japan once again insisted that the territory issue be included in the Declaration. As a result, (9) a statement was inserted into the Declaration in which the USSR agreed to hand over Habomai and Shikotan to Japan, but this was on the understanding that this would be the final position in the preliminaries to the signing of a peace treaty.

Furthermore, it was emphasized that, on this occasion, the Soviet Union in 1956 (10) did not recognize the legality of Japanese demands for the return of Habomai and Shikotan, nor was there any historical precedent between winning and losing nations for doing so, but, by its own voluntary actions, it had tried to accommodate Japan’s position out of a desire to strengthen friendly relations with a neighboring country. (underlining added)

3. Outcome of World War II

The contention that the outcome of World War II should be the starting point (underlined passage (1) above) can be taken as a message that altering the postwar order is inadmissible. In regard to territory in particular, one must take into consideration relation to the postwar order in Europe, especially the changes in German territory. But, frankly speaking, making the outcome of WWII the starting point is akin to saying, “We were the winners, and winners can do whatever they want, and the losing country has no right to object.” This sort of position is also expressed in other parts of Russia’s abovementioned claims (underlined passages (4) and (10)). In Stalin’s speech marking victory over Japan, his “Address to the People” on September 2, 1945 (the day Japan signed the Instrument of Surrender on the USS Missouri), Stalin said that Russia had waited 40 years for the day when Japan would be crushed and the stain of the defeat of Russian troops in the Russo-Japanese War would be wiped out. [4]

However, Russia violated the Treaty of Neutrality between Japan and the Soviet Union, entered the war in its final stages (after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima) and, after a short period of engagement, declared itself the victor. In addition to the restoration of southern Karafuto (southern Sakhalin), which had been ceded to Japan after the Russo-Japanese War (the 1905 Portsmouth Peace Treaty), the Soviets attempted to take the Kurile Islands, which had been transferred to Japan in exchange of Karafuto (Sakhalin) through peaceful diplomatic negotiations between the two countries (the 1875 Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands), and even laid claim to the four Northern Islands that had never been Russian territory. Even though Russia insists that it was Japan who violated the Neutrality Pact (underlined passage (6)) and that the Allies recognized the handover of the Kurile Islands as a historically just act (underlined passage (5)), that argument cannot be said persuasive since, while the other Allies upheld the principle of non-territorial aggrandizement and regarded the war as not being for personal gain (see the next section 4), the Soviets alone espoused “territorial expansion.”

4. Principle of Non-Territorial Expansion

The contention (underlined passage (2) above) that Japan forfeited its right to refer to earlier treaties, including the 1855 Treaty, as a result of its treacherous attack of 1904 (the Russo-Japanese War) is a rebuttal to the following Japan’s claims, i.e., that the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation between Japan and Russia (February 7, 1855), the first treaty between the two countries, regarded the four Northern Islands as Japanese territory; that they had never previously been the territory of any other country except Japan; and that Russia’s control of such territory (which is an inherent part of Japan) is a violation of the “principle of non-territorial aggrandizement” in the Atlantic Charter (1941). Against these claims, the Russian counterargument is that the 1855 Treaty fixed the border in the Chishima (Kurile) region confirming that the islands north of Uruppu were Russian territory while Karafuto (Sakhalin) remained unpartitioned between Japan and Russia and that, under the 1875 Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands, Japan exchanged its title to Karafuto (Sakhalin) with the Kurile Islands; as a result, it was established that Sakhalin was Russian territory; nonetheless Japan started the Russo-Japanese War and attempted to take Sakhalin (had the southern half ceded to them under the 1905 Portsmouth Peace Treaty); and therefore Japan had no right to bring up border agreements that Japan itself had violated.

The Atlantic Charter was a joint statement issued during World War II by the United States and the United Kingdom on August 14, 1941, in which the two countries declared that they “seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other.” The joint declaration of January 1, 1942 by the Allied powers (of which the Soviet Union was a signatory) gave their assent to the Charter, and the Cairo Declaration (the US, UK and China) on December 1, 1943 stated that they “covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion. … Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China. Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.” These documents were statements by the Allied side that World War II was not a war to acquire territory or resource rights as wars that went before, but a “just” war against totalitarianism.

But even a territory that has never before been the territory of another country (in that sense, an inherent territory) can be renounced or handed over to another country (sold, exchanged or ceded under a peace treaty), and if a country so disposed of its territory, the territory ceases to be part of its home country. Under Article 2(c) of the Treaty of Peace with Japan of September 8, 1951, Japan renounced the Chishima Islands (the Kurile Islands in the official English text). The point, then, is whether or not the four Northern Islands were included in the Chishima Islands that Japan renounced. The Japanese side’s assertion is not that the border determined by the 1855 Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation is still valid, but that by confirming the national borders which had been previously established, the said treaty shows that the four Northern Islands are territory which had never been the territory of another country,[5] and that the interpretation that Japan was not made to renounce such territory conforms to the principle of non-territorial expansion which the Allies themselves proclaimed.

5. Interpreting the Treaty

When considering whether or not the four Northern Islands were included in the Chishima Islands that were renounced under the Japanese Peace Treaty, i.e., the meaning of the term “Chishima Islands (Kurile Islands)” in Article 2(c), the point at issue is how to interpret the treaty. The general rule of interpretation as set forth in Article 31 (1) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969 is that “A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose” (although the Convention is not retroactive, Article 31 (1) is regarded as an affirmation of customary international law[6] ). In addition, Oppenheim’s International Law states that “Previous treaties between the parties, and treaties between one of the parties and the third state, particularly if in pari materii with the treaty being interpreted, may sometimes be referred to for the purpose of clearing the meaning of the text.”[7]

Against the Japanese side’s contention that the four Northern Islands were not included in the “Chishima Islands (Kurile Islands)” in Article 2(c) of the Japanese Peace Treaty, the Soviet side asserted that no such demarcation was made in either the Yalta Agreement or the San Francisco Peace Treaty (the Treaty of Peace with Japan) (underlined passage (8) above). In this regard, Khrushchev’s letter (December 8, 1961)[8] points out that pilot guides, which were government publications, Japanese travel guides and many other prewar Japanese publications treated the four Northern Islands as the Chishima Islands. The Soviet side cited the 1937 Karafuto nanbu engan Chishima Rettō suiroshi (Pilot guide to the southern coast of Karafuto and the Chishima Islands) edited by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Hydrographic Department, which, in its general description of the Chishima Islands in chapter 1, states that “Chishima … is made up of the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Uruppu and Paramushiru in the first row, running parallel with this and dotted along the northwest are the islands of Buroton … Araido in the second row, and the island groups of the Suishō Islands [i.e., the Habomai Islands] and Shikotan Island.” Chapter 3 states “this chapter contains articles on the southern Chishima Islands, namely, the two major islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu, and the Suishō Islands and Shikotan Island. The southern part of the Chishima Islands is commonly called Southern Chishima and is an area that is permanently inhabited.” Likewise, the 1937 Nihon annaiki: Hokkaidōhen (Japan travel guide: Hokkaido) compiled by the Ministry of Railways states in its general remarks section that “the Chishima Islands form a large arc stretching from Nemuro Bay to the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. The three major islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Uruppu lie northeast of the main island of Hokkaido,” and the section on the Chishima Islands introduces the geography of the islands of Shikotan, Kunashiri, Etoforu, Uruppu, Paramushiru, Araido, Shumushu, etc. It is true that both the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu, and even Habomai and Shikotan were sometimes included in the Chishima Islands in terms of their geographical name. [9]

ut since, as a method of treaty interpretation, “the ordinary meaning of a term” is, as stated above, the meaning “given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose,” not just the geographical name but the history of the Chishima Islands may be taken into consideration as “context”; alternatively, other treaties relating to the same region ought to be cited when interpreting a treaty. The fact is that the 1855 Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation between Japan and Russia confirmed the previously established border between the two countries in the Chishima Islands, i.e. that the islands north of Uruppu belonged to Russia, and the four Northern Islands were from the outset Japanese territory, and that under the 1875 Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands, Japan’s title to Karafuto (Sakhalin) was exchanged (mutually ceded) for Russia’s title to the Chishima Islands north of Uruppu. If these historical facts and the relevant treaties are taken into consideration,[10] the term “Chishima Islands (Kurile Islands)” in the Japanese Peace Treaty, in conjunction with the context of the principle of non-territorial expansion (section 4 above), can be understood to be the islands north of Uruppu (not including the four Northern Islands) that were confirmed to be Russian territory under the 1855 treaty and were the object of exchange in the 1875 treaty.

6. The Position of the United States

At the time of the negotiations to restore diplomatic relations between Japan and the Soviet Union (1955–56), the Japanese government asked the US government about the Chishima Islands (Kurile Islands) and received a response. According to the book written by Ambassador Matsumoto Shun’ichi, who served as plenipotentiary representative at these talks, the October 1955 inquiry to the US (sounding out its views) and its response were as follows: [11]

(1) When the Allied leaders who took part in the Yalta Conference used the term “Kurile Islands” in the Yalta Agreement, were they aware of the historical fact that both the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu directly adjacent to Hokkaido were inherent Japanese territory inhabited only by large numbers of Japanese nationals and that they had never in the past belonged under the control of any other country; or that only the 18 islands up to Uruppu Island, excluding both Kunashiri and Etorofu, were defined as the “Chishima islands” in the Japanese-Russian treaty of 1875? [12] (2) Did the American government, which played the main role in drafting the San Francisco Peace Treaty, understand at that time that the “Kurile islands” in Article 2(c) of that treaty did not include the two islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu?

(1) No geographical definition of the Chishima Islands was given at the Yalta Conference nor was there any discussion of the islands’ history. The Yalta Agreement did not aim to transfer territorial rights nor did it have that effect. There are absolutely no records thatsuggest that the parties to the Yalta Agreement had the intention of allowing the Soviet Union to claim territory that had not previously been Russian territory. (2) The definition of Chishima was left open in both the Japanese Peace Treaty and the minutes of the San Francisco Conference. The position of the United States is that any dispute over the “Chishima Islands” can be referred to the International Court of Justice as prescribed in Article 22 of the Peace Treaty. (3) The ultimate disposition of Chishima and southern Karafuto will likely be the result of a “future international decision”. … On the restoration to Japan of Kunashiri and Etorofu, the United States is not opposed to Japan’s reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union on the grounds that these islands are not part of Chishima in return for Japan’s affirmation in a Japanese-Soviet peace treaty that it will renounce its claim to Chishima and southern Karafuto.

Subsequently, after the Shigemitsu-Dulles talks – Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru’s report in London on the results of the first Moscow rapprochement talks to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (who put together the peace treaty with Japan in 1950–51 as a consultant to the then Secretary of State) – the United States made the following statement in a memorandum addressed to Japan from the Department of State dated September 7, 1956: [13]

With respect to the territorial question, as the Japanese Government has been previously informed, the United States regards the so-called Yalta agreement as simply a statement of common purposes by the then heads of the participating powers, and not as a final determination by those powers or of any legal effect in transferring territories. The San Francisco Peace Treaty (which conferred no rights upon the Soviet Union because it refused to sign) did not determine the sovereignty of the territories renounced by Japan, leaving that question, as was stated by the Delegate of the United States at San Francisco, to “international solvents other than this treaty.” … The United States has reached the conclusion after careful examination of the historical facts that the islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri (along with the Habomai Islands and Shikotan which are a part of Hokkaido) have always been part of Japan proper and should in justice be acknowledged as under Japanese sovereignty. The United States would regard Soviet agreement to this effect as a positive contribution to the reduction of tension in the Far East.

The same view was expressed to Russia in a note to the Soviet Union of May 23, 1957 regarding the shooting down of a US aircraft over Hokkaido on November 7, 1954. [14]

Russia contends that its non-participation in the Japanese Peace Treaty does not diminish the fact that Japan renounced the Kurile Islands and that this renunciation has an absolute nature and extends to countries other than the signatories to the Peace Treaty with Japan (underlined passage (7) in section 2 above). It is true that the renouncing and ceding of territory have erga omnes effects – it is unlikely that a situation may arise in which a land belongs to country A but does not in relation to country B. But if the four Northern Islands were not included in the Chishima Islands (Kurile Islands) in the Peace Treaty with Japan, they were not renounced; the United States has also expressed this view externally.

7. The Yalta Agreement

Russia assumes that because Japan signed the Instrument of Surrender on September 2, 1945 and accepted all the conditions arising from the Allies’ agreements, including the Yalta Agreement (underlined passage (3) in section 2 above), it is obligated to comply with the Yalta Agreement unconditionally. The Yalta Agreement of February 11, 1945 by the leaders of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union states that “in two or three months after Germany has surrendered and the war in Europe is terminated, the Soviet Union shall enter into war against Japan on the side of the Allies on condition that … 2. The former rights of Russia violated by the treacherous attack of Japan in 1904 shall be restored, viz.: (a) The southern part of Sakhalin as well as the islands adjacent to it shall be returned to the Soviet Union; … 3. The Kurile Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union. … The heads of the three great powers have agreed that these claims of the Soviet Union shall be unquestionably fulfilled after Japan has been defeated.”

Russia’s line of reasoning is that in the Instrument of Surrender, Japan pledged “to carry out the provisions of the Potsdam Declaration in good faith,” in which it was stated that, “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine” (paragraph 8); in other words, “as we determine” refers to the Yalta Agreement, and that Japan had capitulated and agreed that the Allies would determine the territory remaining to Japan with the exception of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku.

As stated earlier, the Cairo Declaration was based on the principle of non-territorial aggrandizement in that the signatories “covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion,” and its aim was to strip Japan of the islands in the Pacific mandated to it since World War I, restore Manchuria, Formosa and the Pescadores to the Republic of China, expel Japan from all other areas that it had taken by violence and greed and in due course make Korea independent. The fact that the Potsdam Declaration refers to the Cairo Declaration and limits Japanese sovereignty to “such minor islands as we determine” is thought to be due to the existence of the then secret Yalta Agreement (since it was before the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan).[15] The Yalta Agreement itself, however, did not transfer part of Japan’s territory to Russia (the Soviet Union). Changes to Japanese territory took place under the Japanese Peace Treaty. That treaty stipulated that Japan renounce southern Karafuto and the Kurile Islands, not that it cede them to the Soviet Union.

As for the relationship between the Yalta Agreement and the Japanese Peace Treaty, as is widely known, the following exchange took place on January 22, 1952 in the US Senate, which was deliberating items of the Japanese Peace Treaty to be approved for ratification. Namely, in response to a Senator’s question as to whether, from a legal perspective, if the United States approved the peace treaty, it would mean a ratification of the Yalta Agreement, Dulles replied, “On the contrary, … this treaty is the first formal act which the United States will have taken which involves a clear abandonment of Yalta. … I do not say it violates Yalta because already Yalta has been violated and by them. It can be said that this treaty departs from Yalta, ignores Yalta, and in that respect I think it is something which the Senate of the United States will welcome as the first formal act by the United States which recognizes our total freedom from any obligations that stem from Yalta.” [16]

In short, although a stipulation was provided in the Potsdam Declaration that the Allies keep the Yalta Agreement in mind when determining the extent of Japan’s territories, the said determination was made under the Japanese Peace Treaty, and it differed from the Yalta Agreement. In any case, no stipulations were made that would render the principle of non-territorial expansion null and void – ceding to Russia an area that had never been Russian territory, for example.

8. Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration

Russia contends that it cannot agree with the Japanese side’s interpretation of the Gromyko-Matsumoto letters and that the provision made in the Joint Declaration of 1956 agreeing to hand over Habomai and Shikotan to Japan were on “the understanding that this would be the final position in the preliminaries to the signing of a peace treaty” (underlined passage (9) in section 2 above).

The Gromyko-Matsumoto letters are an exchange of notes that agreed to continue negotiations on concluding a peace treaty “including the territorial issue” once diplomatic relations were restored. Rapprochement talks between Japan and the Soviet Union proceeded through the London talks of 1955 (when the Soviet side suggested it would hand over Habomai and Shikotan as a settlement of all pending matters including the territorial issue), the first Moscow talks of 1956 (where the Soviet side’s unwavering position became clear when Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru visited the Soviet Union and demanded the four islands) and the second Moscow talks that same year (when Prime Minister Hatoyama Ichirō personally visited the Soviet Union and agreed to the restoration of diplomatic relations). On the occasion of Hatoyama’s visit, the policy decided on at first was to shelf the territorial issue (called the Adenauer formula) and resolve such matters as obtaining Russian support for Japan’s admission to the United Nations and the return to Japan of Japanese nationals who continued to be detained as criminals under Soviet law. Since it was necessary under this formula for Japan to have the Soviet Union commit to continuing discussions of the territorial issue after diplomatic relations were restored, Plenipotentiary Matsumoto Shun’ichi went to Moscow beforehand and made the abovementioned agreement with First Vice Foreign Minister Gromyko. Just before Prime Minister Hatoyama’s visit, however, the policy changed (due to the political situation within Japan) to that of securing the handover of Habomai and Shikotan which the Soviet side had suggested the year before, on the occasion of the restoration of diplomatic relations. In fact, the Japanese side sought to make provisions for Habomai and Shikotan in the rapprochement treaty. Article 9 of the “Joint Declaration by Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” (signed on October 19, 1956 and came into effect on December 12, 1956 when the instruments of ratification were exchanged) stipulated that negotiations for the conclusion of a peace treaty would continue after normal diplomatic relations were restored and that the transfer of the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan would take place after a peace treaty had been concluded.[17] After the signing of the Joint Declaration, the Gromyko-Matsumoto letters were published with the consent of the Soviet Union.

According to the understanding on the Soviet side, the Gromyko-Matsumoto letters meant that negotiations on the territorial issue, i.e., the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan, would continue on the premise that a treaty restoring diplomatic relations would be concluded without any reference to territory, and that if the treaty did stipulate the handover of Habomai and Shikotan, that would end the matter (there would be no further territorial issues, no claim for Kunashiri and Etorofu). The problem is: What was agreed upon at the second Moscow talks? Did the Japanese side, for example, sign the Joint Declaration with an understanding that the Soviet side’s position was that any reference to Habomai and Shikotan would be final? As far as can be seen from the documents regarded as records of the negotiations – on the Japanese side: the memos of Noguchi Yoshio (who acted as interpreter) published in March 2005 by Ishikawa Tatsuo, a former reporter for the Jiji Press and the secretary to Agriculture and Forestry Minister Kōno Ichirō (who was effectively in charge of the second Moscow talks);[18] on the Soviet side: the report published in a Russian magazine in 1996 that was also reported separately in the Sankei Shimbun[19] – the Japanese side acknowledged the Soviet side’s position but did not agree with it. In addition, the Joint Communiqué at the time of President Boris Yeltsin’s visit to Japan (“Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia Relations,” October 13, 1993)[20] acknowledged the existence of the territorial issue and that this is the issue of where the four islands belong. Nevertheless, if the Russian side’s understanding is that it was agreed at the time of the Joint Declaration in 1956 that the handover of Habomai and Shikotan would put an end to the issue, care must be taken in giving excessive emphasis to the Joint Declaration.

  1. For detailed discussions of each point, see Tsukamoto Takashi, “Reisen shūengo no hoppō ryōdo mondai” (The Northern Territory issue after the end of the Cold War), Kokusaihō Gaikō Zasshi (The Journal of International Law and Diplomacy) Vol. 105, No. 1 (May 2006), pp. 71–98; and “Nihon to ryōdo mondai: hoppō ryōdo mondai no Kokusai Shihō Saibansho e no futaku” (Japan and territorial issues: Referring the Northern Territories issue to the International Court of Justice), parts 1 and 2, Refarensu (Reference), No. 504 (January 1993), pp. 49–81, and No. 505 (February 1993), pp. 47–66.
  2. Nampō Dōhō Engokai, ed., Hoppō ryōdo mondai shiryōshū (Collection of documents on the Northern Territories issue), rev. enl. ed. (1968), pp. 232–237.
  3. Alexander Panov, Fushin kara shinrai e: Hoppō ryōdo kōshō no uchimaku (Beyond distrust to trust: Inside the Northern Territories talks with Japan), trans. Takahashi Minoru and Satō Toshirō (Tokyo: Simul Press, 1992), pp. 56–60
  4. Shigeta Hiroshi and Suezawa Shōji, Nisso kihon bunsho shiryoshū (Collection of Basic documents on Japan-Soviet Union Relations) (Tokyo: Sekai no Ugokisha, 1988), p. 58.
  5. The argument is made in Russia, however, that “a Russian expeditionary party surveyed Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai before Japan did; that Catherine II incorporated them into her empire and granted citizenship to the islands’ residents; and that all four islands were recorded as constituent parts of the Russian state in the 1796 map of the Russian Empire. Therefore, the claim that the four islands had never been included in Russian territory is false; in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Russian rule was temporarily interrupted, bands of Japanese warriors invaded the southern Kuriles and expelled our compatriots.” Igor Latyshev, Roshia to Nihon: yukizumatta ryōdo ronsō (The deadlocked territorial dispute between Russia and Japan), trans. Fujita Masao (Tokyo: Marushō Honyaku Shoin, 2005), pp. 93–94. Original title: Россия и Япония: в тупике территориального спора (Rossiya i Yaponiya: v tupike territorial'nogo spora) (Moscow: Algorithm, 2004). Although this is not the government’s view, it needs to be examined from the perspective of historical fact and public opinion.
  6. The International Court of Justice’s territorial-dispute-related rulings have judged it to be an expression of customary international law in the following cases, for example: Territorial Dispute (Libyan Arab Jamahiriya/Chad), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1994, pp. 6–40, especially pp. 21-22, para. 41; and Kasikili/Sedudu Island (Botswana/Namibia), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1999, pp. 1045–1109, especially p. 1059, para. 18. [available online at ICJ website]
  7. Sir Robert Jennings and Sir Arthur Watts, eds., Oppenheim’s International Law, Vol. 1 Peace, 9th edition (London: Longman, 1996), p. 1274 note 18
  8. See section 2 above and note 2.
  9. Chishima started out from Kunashiri Etorofu as the name of an administrative division. In 1869, when Ezo was renamed Hokkaido and 86 counties were established in 11 provinces, the two islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu became Chishima Province, and, when the islands north of Uruppu became Japanese territory under the Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands of 1875, the following year (1876) “the Kurile Islands under the jurisdiction of the Development Commissioner” were added to Chishima Province. Then, in 1885, Shikotan Island, which until then had belonged to Nemuro Province along with the Habomai Islands, was also incorporated into Chishima Province. Hōrei zensho (Statute book) for 1869, pp. 298–300; for 1876, p. 3; and for 1885, p. 1 [available in the Japanese National Diet Library’s digital collection].
  10. It has been argued that the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation between Japan and Russia and the Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands defined the “Kurile Islands” as those north of Uruppu: namely, that Article 2 of the Treaty of Commerce states, “Henceforth the border between Japan and Russia will pass between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu. The whole island of Etorofu belongs to Japan and the whole island of Uruppu, and the Kurile Islands to the north of the island of Uruppu constitute possessions of Russia. As regards the island of Karafuto (Sakhalin), it remains unpartitioned between Japan and Russia, as has been the case up to this time”; and that Article 2 of the Treaty of Exchange says, “In exchange for the cession to Russia of the rights on the island of Karafuto (Sakhalin) stipulated in the first article, His Majesty the Emperor of All the Russias, for Himself and for His descendants, cedes to His Majesty the Emperor of Japan the group of the islands, called Kurile which He possesses at present, together with all the rights of sovereignty appertaining to this possession, so that henceforth all the Kurile Islands shall belong to the Empire of Japan and the boundary between the Empires of Japan and Russia in these areas shall pass through the Strait between Cape Lopatka of the Peninsula of Kamchatka and the island of Shumushu. The Kurile Islands comprises the following eighteen islands: 1) Shumushu, 2) Araido, … 18) Uruppu.” Based on this passage, argument has been made that this “definition” of the Kurile Islands also ought to apply in the 1951 Peace Treaty. It has also been argued, however, that the Western language texts of the two treaties regard the entire archipelago from Kunashiri to Shumushu as the Kurile Islands. For further details, see Wada Haruki, Hoppō ryōdo mondai o kangaeru (Examining the Northern Territories issue) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1990), Chapter 2. The “definition” argument, which depends on the Japanese text, is hard to be understood by foreigners.
  11. Matsumoto Shun’ichi, Mosukuwa ni kakeru niji: Nisso kokkō kaifuku hiroku (Rainbow over Moscow: Secret records of the Japan-Soviet rapprochement) (Tokyo: Asahi Shimbunsha, 1966), pp. 62–63.
  12. See note 10 above.
  13. >“U.S. Position on Soviet-Japanese Peace Treaty Negotiations,” The Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 35, No. 900 (September 24, 1956) p. 484. [The Bulletin is available online at the HathiTrust Digital Library.]
  14. The Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 37, No. 941 (July 8, 1957), p. 72. The “documents” referred to are the Yalta Agreement and the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
  15. See Takano Yūichi, Nihon no ryōdo (Japan’s territory) (Tokyo: Tōkyō Daigaku Shuppankai, 1962), pp. 92–96.
  16. Reply to a question by Senator Alexander Wiley on January 22, 1952. Japanese Peace Treaty and Other Treaties Relating to Security in the Pacific: Hearings before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 82nd Congress, 2nd Session on January 21, 22, 23 and 25, 1952 (Washington: Government Printing Office), pp. 56–57. [Transcript of these hearings are available online at Hathi Trust Digital Library]. As a Soviet violation of the Yalta Agreement in Asia, Dulles said that although the Soviet Union had promised to recognize and establish relations with the Nationalist Government of China, it turned over vast war supplies in Manchuria to the Communist regime. (Response to a written question from Senator Arthur Watkins on January 21, 1952, ibid., pp. 20–21).
  17. For the process up to this point, see Matsumoto, cited above in note 11. The Joint Declaration of Japan and the USSR was called a Joint Declaration, and the term peace treaty was avoided because negotiations to conclude a peace treaty were continuing, but unlike joint statements in which leaders of the time state their common policy objectives, this was a treaty concluded through constitutional procedures in both countries (in the case of Japan, by approval of the Diet on December 12, 1956).
  18. “Mosukuwa no Nisso kokkōkōshō ‘kakugi kettei-zumi’ to jōho kobamu – ryōdo de ikizumaru ōshū = shunō kaidan no kiroku o kōkai =” (Moscow Japan-Soviet rapprochement talks, refuses to compromise, saying ‘already approved by Cabinet’ – breathless exchanges over territory – release of records of summit meeting,” Seiji kisha OB-kai hō (Proceedings of the political reporters’ OB club) 90 (March 15, 2005), pp 1–24. These records are said to be ones that Mr. Ishikawa received from his predecessor, Shigetami Sunada. The July 2005 issue of Gekkan Jiyū Minshu (Liberal Democratic monthly) reprinted five of the records.
  19. Соглашается на передачу Японии островов Хабомаи и Сикотан (Agreement to transfer the islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan), Источник (Istochnik/Source), No. 6 (1996), pp. 107–136. “Kyūsoren tainichi kōshō himitsu bunsho shōhō” (Full report of the confidential text of the former Soviet Union’s negotiations with Japan) parts 1 and 2, in the July 22–23, 1996 issues of the Sankei Shimbun. Parts of the talks included in the Noguchi memo referred to above in note 18 but not recorded in Источник are published in the August 1993 issue of Foresight, pp. 26–30 (translated by Kaneda Masayuki).
  20. “2. The Prime Minister of Japan and the president of the Russian Federation … have undertaken serious negotiations on the issue of where Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai Islands belong. They agree that negotiations towards an early conclusion of a peace treaty through the solution of this issue on the basis of historical and legal facts and based on the documents produced with the two countries' agreement as well as on the principles of law and justice should continue, and that the relations between the two countries should thus be fully normalized.” Gaikō Seisho (Diplomatic Blue Book) 1993 ed., fascicule 1, document 3.(8).
    English translation available at: [accessed March 27, 2020].


Professor, School of Law, Tokai University. Born in 1952. Graduate of the School of Law, Waseda University. Former director general of the Research and Legislative Reference Bureau of the National Diet Library. The author of many articles on territory-related issues in the Review of Island Studies, including “The Treaty of Peace with Japan and Takeshima’s Legal Status” (June 10, 2013) ; “The Late-Seventeenth-Century ‘Takeshima’ Dispute with Reference to the Dajokan Order” (August 29, 2014) ; “The Meaning of the Territorial Incorporation of Takeshima (1905)” (December 25, 2014) ; “English-language Research Papers Related to Takeshima Prepared by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1947” (September 12, 2016); “Takeshima to Senkakushotō” (Takeshima and the Senkaku Islands) Vol. 5, No. 1 (March 2015); “Chūgoku no shuchō suru supuratorī shotō ryōyū konkyo to sono kentō” (The basis for China’s claims to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and an examination of them) Vol. 6, No. 1 (October 2016); Hoppo yonto wo meguru Roshia no ryouyuken shucho ni tsuite (Russia’s Claim to Sovereignty over the Four Northern Islands) Vol. 7, No.1 (September 2017).