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My Solution to the Kuril Islands Problem

by Viacheslav Yatsko

part 1 of 2


The impetus for this short essay was the bill adopted by the Japanese Parliament on July 3, 2009. It declared that the Kuril Islands “have always been Japanese territory.”

This decision raised strong objections on the Russian side.

We witness tension in relations between the two countries. The aim of this essay is to suggest a solution to the problem of the Kuril Islands that, I hope, will be acceptable to both the Russians and the Japanese.

Some Facts from History

Kuril world map, source Wikipedia
The Kuril Islands comprise 56 islands in total and many more minor rocks that stretch from Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula to Japan’s Hokkaido Island. The map shows the geographical position of the islands.

This position is of strategic importance: the owner of the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island can fully control the Sea of Okhotsk, which washes the Russian continental coast. Apart from that, the Islands themselves and the Sea of Okhotsk are rich in natural resources, hence the long-lasting dispute between Russia and Japan.

The first confrontation between the two countries took place as early as 1811, when Russian Captain Vasily Golovnin and his crew, who stopped at Kunashir during their hydrographic survey, were captured by samurais. Because a Japanese trader, Takadaya Kahei, was also captured by a Russian vessel near Kunashir, Japan and Russia entered into negotiations to establish the border between the two countries.

The Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was concluded in 1855, and the border was established between Iturup and Urup. This border confirmed that Japanese territory stretched south from Iturup and Russian territory stretched north from Urup. Sakhalin remained a place where people from both countries could live. The Treaty of Saint Petersburg, in 1875, resulted in Japan’s relinquishing all rights to Sakhalin in exchange for Russia’s ceding to Japan all of the Kuril Islands north of Urup.

The situation changed drastically in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, when the Russian armies and fleet were completely defeated in the battles of Mukden and Zusima. In accordance with the Treaty of Portsmouth, Russia ceded the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan in addition to the Kuril Islands, which Japan already possessed.

Kuril retreat, source Wikipedia
Retreat of the Russian Army after the Battle of Mukden

The results of the war shocked Russian society and were one of the causes of the First Revolution of 1905, during which thousands of people were shot and hanged by troops of Czar Nicolas II. Having failed to stand against the foreign enemy, the Czar succeeded in waging war against his own people. It was a turning point in Russian history: frustration and contempt for the Czar and his family struck a mortal blow at the foundations of the Russian monarchy. The ultimate result was the Second Revolution, the Communists’ seizure of power, and the execution of Nicolas II.

The attitudes in Russian society at that time were well expressed in the poem by K. Balmont, a well known Russian poet. Here follows my very free and somewhat awkward translation of the first two stanzas.

Our Czar is Mukden, Our Czar is Tsushima,
He is a bloody, nasty spot
The stinking powder, relapsing fever
That leaves a smeary and dirty blot.
He is a freak of nature, blind, stupid,
Confinement, birch-rods, a cowardly man
The Czar is a gallows-bird good at shooting
His own people, the ones he likes to hang.

Russia evened the score during World War II.

At the Yalta Conference of 1945 the Soviet Union had agreed to Allied pleas to terminate its neutrality pact with Japan and enter World War II’s Pacific Theater within three months after the end of the war in Europe. On August 9, 1945 the Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation began. Russian troops under the command of Marshal Vasilevsky inflicted a crushing defeat on the Japanese Kwantung Army under General Otsuzo Yamada, a force that numbered over six hundred thousand men.

On August 18-31, Soviet forces occupied the North and South Kurils and the whole of Sakhalin Island.

Kuril surrender, source Wikipedia
Japanese soldiers surrendering to the Red Army.

The Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation, along with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined to force Japan’s surrender; they made it clear that Japan had no hope of holding out even in the Home Islands. Nevertheless, Japan never accepted Russian occupation of the Kurils and refused to sign a peace treaty with Russia.

In 1956, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchëv promised to return the Habomai and Shikotan islands to Japan in order to make a peace treaty possible. Negotiations between Russians and Japanese failed because of pressure on Japan from the USA, which was afraid that the Soviet Union would legally possess the Kuril Islands.

In 2004 Lavrov, President Putin’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared that Russia was ready to fulfill Khrushchëv’s promise to cede two of the Kuril Islands to Japan. The Japanese did not accept the proposal and demanded that Russia cede the four islands that they call the “Northern Territories.”

Russia and Japan still don’t have a peace treaty, which means that they are technically still in a state of war.


Both sides provide arguments to support their positions that can be summarized as follows.

Russian arguments

Japanese arguments

The argumentation shows how deep the contradictions between the positions of two sides are, how unlikely agreement is, and how important it is to suggest a solution acceptable to both sides.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Viacheslav Yatsko

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