Northern Territories Issue
Basic Understanding of the Northern Territories Issue
- The Northern Territories consist of four islands located off the northeast coast of the Nemuro Peninsula of Hokkaido. They are: Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu. The Northern Territories are not included in the Kurile Islands.
- Japan discovered and surveyed the Four Northern Islands before the Russians arrived there. By the early 19th century at the latest, Japan had effectively established control over the four islands. In 1855, the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation between Japan and Russia, which was concluded in a completely friendly and peaceful manner, confirmed the already established natural boundaries, drawing the boundary between the islands of Etorofu (the northernmost island of the Northern Territories) and Uruppu. The Four Northern Islands had never been held by foreign countries.
- However, nearing the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union, in violation of the Neutrality Pact that was still in force between Japan and the Soviet Union, opened the war with Japan. Even after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration, Soviet forces continued its offensive against Japan and occupied all of the Four Northern Islands from 28 August 1945 to 5 September 1945.
- Subsequently, the Soviet Union unilaterally incorporated the territories under occupation into its own territories without any legal grounds, and by 1949 had forcibly deported all Japanese residents of the Four Northern Islands (approximately 17,000 people).
- Since that time, return of the Northern Territories has been the ardent wish of the people of Japan, and a deep-rooted movement among the general public for the return of the islands has developed national-wide. With this strong support from the people of Japan, the Government of Japan, under a consistent policy, has persistently called on the Soviet Union, and subsequently the Russian Federation, to conclude a peace treaty between the two countries, contingent on the resolution of the Northern Territories issue.
- As a result of negotiations to date, both Japan and Russia have agreed to resolve the issue of the attribution of the Four Northern Islands and to conclude a peace treaty, and have continued vigorous negotiations. The Russian side also states that it continues to pursue a solution on the demarcation of an internationally recognized national border that is acceptable to both countries.
Japan's Basic Position
- The Northern Territories are inherent territories of Japan that continues to be illegally occupied by Russia. The Government of the United States of America has also consistently supported Japan's position.
- In order to solve this issue and to conclude a peace treaty as soon as possible, Japan has energetically continued negotiations with Russia on the basis of the agreements and documents created by the two sides so far.
- Japan's position is that if the attribution of the Northern Territories to Japan is confirmed, Japan is prepared to respond flexibly to the timing and manner of their actual return. After the return of the islands to Japan, Japan intends to respect the rights, interests and wishes of the Russian current residents on the islands.
- The Japanese government has requested Japanese people not to enter the Northern Territories without using the non-visa visit frameworks until the territorial issue is resolved. Similarly, Japan cannot allow any activities, including economic activities by a third party, which could be regarded as submitting to Russian "jurisdiction," nor allow any activities carried out under the presumption that Russia has "jurisdiction" in the Northern Territories. Japan is of the policy to take appropriate steps to ensure that this does not happen.
Joint economic activities on the Four Northern Islands
At the summit meeting in Yamaguchi when President Putin visited Japan in December 2016, the two leaders held a candid and extremely in-depth discussion on the peace treaty issue, and as a result, they expressed their sincere determination to resolve this issue. The two leaders reached mutual understanding that the commencement of the consultations on joint economic activities on the Four Northern Islands by Japan and Russia can be a significant step toward the conclusion of a peace treaty.
At the summit meeting in September 2017, the two leaders designated the five candidate projects* to be undertaken promptly.
As a result of the discussion at the Japan-Russia summit meeting in June 2019, the two leaders shared the view that pilot projects in the areas of tourism and waste management would be implemented. Waste-management experts from both sides visited the main island of Hokkaido and the Four Northern Islands in August and September, and first pilot tour joined by Japanese tourists was conducted from October to November.
A series of discussions have been held subsequently in order to realize the five candidate projects not only between the leaders and Foreign Ministers, but also at vice-ministerial consultations, director-general-level working groups, etc.
*(1) Propagation and aquaculture of marine products, (2) Greenhouse vegetable cultivation, (3) Development of tours compatible with the islands' features, (4) Introduction of wind-power generation and (5) Garbage Volume reduction measures.
(Reference) History and Current Status of the Negotiations toward the Conclusion of a Japan-Russia Peace Treaty
- From June 1955 to October 1956, negotiations were held to conclude a peace treaty between Japan and the Soviet Union. However, since there was no prospect for agreement regarding the issue of the Northern Territories, excluding Shikotan and Habomai Islands, on 19 October 1956, the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration was signed in place of a peace treaty, stipulating the termination of the state of war and the resumption of diplomatic relations (this Declaration was ratified by both countries and was registered with the United Nations as an international agreement). In Article 9 of the Declaration, the Soviet Union agreed that after normal diplomatic relations between the two countries had been re-established, the peace treaty negotiations shall be continued and the Soviet Union shall hand over Habomai and Shikotan Islands to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty.
- In October 1993, then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and then-President Boris Yeltsin agreed that the guidelines of negotiations toward resolution would be: (a) based on historical and legal facts; (b) based on documents compiled with the agreement of the two countries; and (c) based on the principles of law and justice. (Tokyo Declaration)
- In March 2001, then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori visited Irkutsk. Prime Minister Mori and President Vladimir Putin confirmed the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration signed in 1956 as a basic legal document, which sets a starting point for the negotiation process, and in addition confirmed that based on the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, a peace treaty should be concluded by resolving the issue of the attribution of the Four Islands. (The Irkutsk Statement)
- Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to Russia (January 2003)
- In the Joint Statement, both leaders affirmed their determination to resolve the issue of the attribution of the Four Northern Islands and conclude a peace treaty as soon as possible, thereby completely normalizing relations between the two countries.
- The Japan-Russia Action Plan specifically mentioned the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, the 1993 Tokyo Declaration and the 2001 Irkutsk Statement and it was affirmed in the Action Plan that these, in combination with other agreements, the basis for future peace treaty negotiations.
- Prime Minister Abe's visit to Russia (April 2013)
- Both leaders shared the recognition that the absence of a peace treaty between Japan and Russia 67 years after the end of World War II is an unnatural state of affairs, and they expressed their determination to conclude a peace treaty by overcoming the gap between their positions and finally resolving the issue (the attribution of the Four Northern Islands) which was determined to be resolved both in the 2003 Joint Statement and Action Plan.
- They also agreed to give instructions to their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs to accelerate the negotiations toward elaborating a mutually acceptable solution of the peace treaty issue.
- Prime Minister Abe's unofficial visit to Sochi (May 2016)
The two leaders shared the view that the two countries should actively proceed with negotiations toward the formulation of solutions acceptable to both sides through a "new approach" that is not bound by conventional ideas in order to overcome the current negotiation stalemate and make a breakthrough.
- President Putin's visit to Japan (December 2016)
At the summit meeting in Yamaguchi held during President Putin's visit to Japan, the two leaders had candid and extremely in-depth discussions over a long period of time on the issue of a peace treaty, and, as a result, the two leaders expressed their sincere determination to resolve this issue.
Based thereon, they agreed to commence discussions on conducting joint economic activities on the Four Northern Islands under a special arrangement, and shared the view that they would improve the procedures for the visits to graves, etc., by former island residents.
- Japan-Russia summit meeting in Singapore (November 2018)
Prime Minister Abe and President Putin agreed to "accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty on the basis of the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956," based on the trust built by the accumulation of cooperation under the new approach since the December 2016 summit meeting.
- President Putin's visit to Japan (June 2019)
At the summit meeting held on the occasion of the G20 Osaka Summit, Prime Minister Abe and President Putin held candid discussions, including the progress and prospects of the negotiations frequently conducted following the summit meeting in Singapore in November 2018 between their chief negotiators as well as between working-level negotiators.
- Japan-Russia summit telephone talk (September 2020)
Prime Minister Suga and President Putin reconfirmed that Prime Minister Abe and President Putin had agreed to accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty on the basis of the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration at the summit meeting in Singapore in November 2018.
- Based on results achieved to date, both Japan and Russia are continuing to engage in vigorous negotiations to find a solution acceptable to both countries.