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A Tale of Four Little Islands

Events at the end of World War Two continue to influence relations between Japan and Russia.

In September 1941, tipped off by its Tokyo-based spy Richard Sorge that Japan had no imminent intention of attacking the Soviet Union, Moscow felt free to shift massive forces from its Far East Command to the campaign against Nazi Germany. Its focus would remain on Berlin until the closing weeks of the Second World War.

Germany surrendered to the Allied Command on 9th May 1945, and in August, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tokyo surrendered on 2nd September, ushering in the modern era. But things could have turned out differently for Japan, and for the world.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had agreed at the 1943 Tehran Conference to join the war against Japan once the Nazi threat was defeated, and he vowed at the 1945 Yalta Conference do so within three months of Berlin’s surrender. True to his word, the Soviet Union attacked the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (China’s Manchuria) on 9th August after declaring war against Japan a day earlier.

With the Imperial Japanese Army in shambles, Soviet forces swept into Manchukuo and advanced swiftly on several other fronts. These included northern Korea, South Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands chain. An estimated 500,000 to 750,000 Japanese nationals were subsequently interned in Soviet labour camps, many for decades, and some 55,000 are thought to have perished in captivity.

Stalin had intended to continue this campaign with an invasion of Hokkaido, the northern-most island of the Japanese mainland. But he demurred two days before the scheduled attack on 24th August, leaving Japan proper to the Americans.

Some suggest that Stalin’s change of heart was due to Washington’s revelation some two weeks earlier of its nuclear power. The US had until then kept its nuclear programme a closely guarded secret, but Soviet intelligence had long alerted Moscow to its progress, and Stalin was far from cowed. “Not atomic bombs, but armies decide about the war,” he said to Polish Communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka in November 1945.

Stalin wrote to US President Harry Truman on 16th August, seeking his assent for the Soviet invasion of Hokkaido. This reads, in part: “Include the northern half of the island of Hokkaido, which adjoins in the north the Laperouse Strait, located between Karafouto and Hokkaido, into the region of surrender by Japanese forces to Soviet forces. The demarcation line between the northern and southern halves of Hokkaido is to be drawn along the line extending from the town of Kushiro on the eastern coast of the island until the town of Rumoe (sic) on the western coast of the island, including the said towns in the northern half of the island.”

Two days later, geopolitically emboldened by events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman turned him down. “Regarding your suggestion as to the surrender of Japanese forces on the island (of) Hokkaido to Soviet forces, it is my intention and arrangements have been made for the surrender of Japanese forces on all the islands of Japan proper (…) to General MacArthur,” he responded. The US president accepted Moscow’s seizure of the Kuril Islands elsewhere in that same letter but asked for US air basing rights there, a proposal that Moscow ignored.

Writing in US-based Foreign Policy magazine, the international relations specialist, Sergey Radchenko argues that Stalin accepted this decision because he had a more pressing agenda.

“Even a cynical realist like Stalin wanted not so much geopolitical gains as US recognition of his sphere of interests. Attractive for geopolitical reasons, Hokkaido was not part of the deal agreed upon at Yalta in February 1945. Stalin knew that by violating this agreement he risked undermining Soviet gains in the Far East, including possession of southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands,” Radchenko writes. “Stalin wanted Soviet-US cooperation to continue, with each country respecting the other’s legitimate claims.”

Stalin later came to regret his acquiescence, which he formalised with a military order on 22nd August. “In August 1945… he still saw Truman as a partner in the postwar management of the world,” Radchenko notes. “That feeling did not last.”

The Soviet invasion plan for Hokkaido was drawn up by Admiral Ivan Yumashev, Moscow’s military commander in the Far East, and initially centred on seizing the port of Rumoi. The beachhead was to be established by one naval infantry regiment and one rifle regiment, followed two hours later by two rifle divisions, with significant air and naval support.

Communist ideology had meanwhile been established in the country since the Japanese Communist Party was founded in 1922 under Moscow’s firm control, though operations were clandestine after it was immediately outlawed. The party nevertheless attracted over 2.1 million votes, or 3.8 percent of the ballots cast, after being permitted to contest Japan’s first post-war election in 1946.

These elements – control over territory, an active Communist Party structure and some degree of popular support – suggest that Japan came within two days of being split in the manner of Korea and Vietnam. And what a different Japan, what a different geostrategic environment, this would have meant.

These events remain significant to this day, beyond their historical interest.

It is often noted that belligerents involved in the 1950-53 Korean War – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and China on the one side, the US-led United Nations Command on the other – remain technically at war in the absence of a peace treaty, the conflict having been indefinitely suspended by an armistice agreement. But the same holds true for the Soviet-Japanese War, with the central issue to its final resolution centred on competing claims to the Kuril Islands.

Moscow refused to sign the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, the peace agreement that formally ended the Second World War, due to Cold War factors. Instead, it forged a separate end to hostilities five years later with the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration. Though this has legal status denoting an end to hostilities, it is still simply a prelude to a peace treaty whose details have been the subject of sporadic bickering ever since.

The central dispute blocking agreement involves four small islands north of Hokkaido: Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai rocks. In Japan these are known collectively as the Northern Territories.

Tokyo’s position is that the Joint Declaration has Shikotan and the Hobamai rocks being ceded to Japan after a peace treaty is concluded, while sovereignty over the other two islands must be decided through negotiations leading to a peace deal. Moscow’s position, as stated in 2006 by the Putin administration, is that Shikotan and the Habomais will be handed over only after Japan renounces its claim to the other two islands. And so the situation remains.

This seemingly minor dispute evokes sharp nationalist sentiment in both countries, but there are practical considerations beyond the territory involved.

“The level of confidence, of cooperation, of trust between both governments will increase dramatically if we can resolve the (Northern Territories) issue,” a Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told this writer in 2010. In July 2008 the two leaders met and both sides agreed that the fact there exists no peace treaty between Japan and Russia, is not conducive to the enhancement of relations.

“I think the Russian side understands the importance of strategically upgrading the relationship with Japan to a higher level. And I think they understand that to make this happen they have to resolve the issue of the islands.”

According to The Japan Times, “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a 2016 summit to conduct joint economic activity on and around the four islands under a special framework that will not undermine their respective legal positions on the sovereignty of the islands.” This has so far led to no real progress, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a recent visit to Tokyo that Japan’s strengthening of its missile shield in conjunction with the US could scuttle any further steps to reaching a peace treaty deal.

The two countries are scheduled to conduct a strategic dialogue in Moscow at the vice-ministerial level on 19 April and a security dialogue should be held in Tokyo in May. That same month Japanese Prime Minister Abe is due to visit Moscow.

The “two-plus-two” security dialogue brings together foreign and defence ministers, and last year Japan became the first Western-aligned country to resume such a process since Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. Russia is similarly engaged with the US, United Kingdom, France and Italy. Broadly speaking, Tokyo seeks support in addressing its concerns over North Korea and China while Moscow looks to reinforce its international legitimacy in the aftermath of its expulsion from the Group of Eight (G8) highly industrialised nations meeting annually to foster consensus on global issues.

The Northern Territories issue remains an impediment to forging significant bilateral progress, and there are so far no indications that this agenda will be advanced anytime soon. In that sense, the “two-plus-two” talks effectively remain symbolic.

Note: The Soviet Union’s rough operational plan to invade Hokkaido, in both the Russian original and in English-language translation, can be found here.

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About the author

Robert Karniol

Robert Karniol has reported on security-related issues in the Asia-Pacific region for over 30 years, including time spent as Asia editor for the British periodical Jane's Defence Weekly and defence writer at the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. A Canadian national with core interests extending from Central Asia to Hawaii, he has engaged with generals and guerrillas alike.

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