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Japan’s Territorial Problem: The Northern Territories, Takeshima, and the Senkaku Islands

Commentary by Kazuhiko Togo

Professor and Director, Institute for World Affairs, Kyoto Sangyo University


May 8, 2012


The Origins of Territorial Disputes Involving Japan

As the result of its catastrophic defeat in World War II, Japan was scaled down to roughly the size it was at the time of the Meiji Restoration. In the process of the postwar settlement and demarcating its border with surrounding countries, three issues remained unresolved between Japan and its neighbors: the Northern Territories with Russia, Takeshima with Korea, and the Senkaku Islands with China.

Although all three disputes are labeled as “territorial issues,” each one has a fundamentally different character from a legal, political, historical, and practical point of view. I define the Northern Territories as not a territorial issue but a historical memory issue for Japan. The four islands became Japanese territory due to the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda between the Tokugawa Shogunate and Tsarist Russia. Since then the islands’ ownership was never disputed by any country until they came under Russian occupation as the result of an attack that began on August 9, 1945, just six days before Japan surrendered. These islands subsequently became a symbol of the pain that Japan experienced from the Soviet Union during the concluding period of World War II.

Likewise, Takeshima is not a territorial issue but an historical memory issue for Korea. It was formerly placed under the jurisdiction of Shimane Prefecture in 1905 and thus became the precursor to the Japanese colonization of Korea in 1910. Any claim for ownership of Takeshima by Japan sounds as if it is justifying the Korean colonization, which can never be accepted by Koreans.

The Senkaku disputes started at the end of the 1960s when it was discovered that there might be substantial oil resources beneath the islands. Taiwan and China began to claim ownership in 1971, despite the rejection of the Japanese government, whose jurisdiction had been unchallenged since 1895, including during the postwar years from 1945 onward. So the disputes started as an energy-related territorial issue, but given some complexity in the claims that existed before 1895, the issue has the danger to turn into a historical memory issue for China.


Post–World War II Negotiations and Implications for the Region Today

Whatever the essence of each respective issue, once it was determined to be a territorial problem, its resolution was sought through negotiations by the Japanese government. Each negotiation took an entirely different course.

Because of the psychological anguish regarding Russia that has gripped Japan since the summer of 1945, the Northern Territories have always been put at the center of Japan’s negotiations with the Soviet Union and its modern-day counterpart. Japan relinquished the Kuril Islands in the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951), but since the Soviet Union did not sign that treaty, the issue was reexamined in the 1955–56 peace treaty negotiations between the two countries. The Japan–Soviet Union Joint Declaration of 1956 included the partial solution of agreeing on the transfer of the two smaller islands, Habomai and Shikotan, after the conclusion of the peace treaty, but the fate of the two larger islands, Kunashiri and Etorofu, was under a complete deadlock.

During the post–Cold War negotiations, there were three written agreements in 1991, 1993, and 2001, with the high point being the one in 2001 in Irkutsk, where the two sides agreed to enter into negotiations to discuss the transfer of the two smaller islands, based on the 1956 Joint Declaration, as well as the fate of the two larger islands, based on the 1993 Tokyo Declaration. But after Irkutsk, the Japanese negotiating position disintegrated because of political turmoil. Ten years have now passed without any results, despite some additional efforts by both sides from 2006 to 2009, when for the first time in the negotiations, an idea to divide the area of Kunashiri-Etorofu apparently emerged.

In the end, it was primarily Japanese misjudgment about its own negotiating power and its self-righteous rigidity that prevented a breakthrough. But during the nearly three decades of negotiations since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, at least the two sides agreed on such measures as no-visa visits and fishery agreements, and the four islands have ceased to be a security danger in Northeast Asia.

In the case of Takeshima, the situation around the conclusion of the San Francisco Peace Treaty was in favor of Japan, based on the Rusk letter of 1951, which acknowledged Japanese ownership of these islands. But Takeshima was seized physically by South Korea in 1954, when Japan was still under complete demilitarization. The Japanese side reacted by requesting the Korean government to take this issue to the International Court of Justice. However, the dispute remained unsolvable throughout the negotiations that established diplomatic relations in 1965. Since then, the Japanese government has never put the issue at the center of the relationship. The fishery agreement of 1998 created a framework within which the fishing communities of the two countries could coexist without open conflict, but this agreement was not implemented as originally expected, and the frustration of local fishermen resulted in the 2005 establishment of “Takeshima Day” in Shimane Prefecture. President Roh Moo-hyun’s reaction was so harsh as to declare diplomatic war against Japan. In 2006, open conflict between the two countries’ coast guards was barely avoided by successful diplomatic intervention. This issue has become the single greatest obstacle in Japan-Korea bilateral relations as well as a potentially disturbing security factor in the region.

In the Senkaku Islands dispute, the legal position of Japan is that neither China nor Taiwan made any claim from 1945 to 1971 and that therefore the Japanese government’s position is fundamentally solid and quite tenable under existing international law. In addition, the Chinese leadership did not initially place this issue at the center of the relationship. Deng Xiaoping proposed in 1978 “to leave this issue to the wisdom of the next generations” at the concluding stage of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The Japanese government echoed this position and basically kept the islands restricted, even for Japanese nationals, a policy very different from the Russians’ and Koreans’ efforts in exploiting in full the islands under their respective governance. But with the rise of China in the 1990s, the Chinese side began to claim these islands more openly, and this was responded to with sporadic actions by some nationalists in Japan. Finally, in September 2010 the collision of a Chinese fishery vessel and a Japanese coast guard ship heightened the tensions between the two countries and left an impression on the Japanese side that, if mishandled, this issue can become the casus belli for the two countries. Completely different perceptions of the islands then emerged in Japan, as the Senkakus came to be considered one of the most serious security dangers in the region.


Why Must These Issues Be Seriously Addressed Now?

The reasons why these issues need serious attention right now also differ entirely. In the case of the Northern Territories, after ten years of being unable to achieve any kind of breakthrough, Prime Minster Vladimir Putin made an extraordinary statement to the G-8 press corps just before his re-election to the presidency—that he was prepared to negotiate the status of the islands roughly based on the Irkutsk agreement and seek a mutually acceptable “par” solution.

Putin’s overture was based on his careful calculation of Russia’s national interests, determining that close cooperation with Japan would benefit his new presidency. But if Japan fails to grasp this opportunity and continues to make mistakes, it will lose the opportunity for breakthroughs in the foreseeable future, and the four islands will become a place exploited solely by the Russians, a place where tourists from all over the world may get together with the exception of the Japanese. Not only will Japan fail to achieve its long-standing principal foreign policy objective, but it will also lose a potential solid partner in the age of a rising China.

For Takeshima, since this is the single most explosive issue for Koreans, Japan’s inability to have some kind of managed approach immediately results in losing Korea as a solid partner, an axiomatic necessity for Japan because the two countries have so many shared issues needing cooperation in the age of the rise of China. Japan would not only fail to get what it could have gained but also, if mishandled, this issue could turn into a real security danger for all of Northeast Asia, as exemplified by the incident in 2006.

The urgency of addressing the Senkaku Islands dispute is plainly obvious: the islands now run the risk of causing a violent conflict between Japan and China. In a situation where Japan’s actual ownership and legal position are solid, there is no reason to give up its ownership, and, in fact, sound defense policy is needed to maintain the status quo. But all-out diplomacy should precede any military conflict between the two countries. This is of highest priority, all the more so because, given the overall phenomenon of the rise of China, Japan has no time to lose on failed diplomacy or risking the lives of Japanese and Chinese youngsters on account of islands where wild goats have effectively been sovereign for many decades now.


What Concrete Measures Can Be Taken?

For the Northern Territories, in this final showdown, Japan should realize squarely its negotiating position vis-à-vis Russia. Its legal position is not as predominant as the government has tried to convince the people. In the mind of negotiators at San Francisco, Kunashiri and Etorofu were included in the Kuril Islands that Japan renounced, and it was only the Soviet failure to sign that treaty that saved Japan’s position. The “four islands in a bunch” solution that the Japanese government has maintained for so long, possibly out of fear about its own weakness, has no possibility whatsoever of being accepted by Putin. All possible solutions other than “four islands in a bunch,” including “two plus alpha” and joint administration, have to be carefully studied before the next round of negotiations starts. The expected length of the negotiations cannot be longer than a year, dating from the time the next Russian presidency starts in May 2012.

What is desired for Takeshima is some kind of controlled governance that allows the two countries to live with this issue until the final solution emerges many years from now. To achieve this immediate objective, the Japanese people need to know much more about the nature of Korean emotions and also that not all assertions by the Japanese government seem to be correct. In particular, the two occasions when the Tokugawa Bakufu (1695–96) and the Meiji Government (1886–87) did not assert ownership of these islands vis-à-vis Korea seem to have been obscured. But the Korean side should give a little more sober reflection to its extreme emotions on Dokdo (the Liancourt Rocks) and also realize that not all of its historic analysis seems to be correct, such as its contention that the 1900 Imperial Decree declared Takeshima to be Korean, as maintained by “positivist” Japanese scholarship.

Though it does not provide a final solution, ideas such as enhanced dialogue among positivist scholars between the two countries would be useful. In fact, some contacts and debates seem to have already started along those lines in fall 2011. Some confidence-building measures can also play a positive role. At least at the Track II level, Korean opinion leaders welcomed such ideas, borrowing from the rich experience between Japan and Russia, and proposed such at a Track II conference in June 2009.

On the Senkaku Islands dispute, while Japan’s legal position seems to be strong, the Japanese people should be more aware that the process by which Japan annexed these islands at the time of its victory in the first Sino-Japanese War resembles very closely the process of annexing Takeshima. The Senkakus’ acquisition in January 1895 preceded Taiwan’s acquisition through the Shimonoseki Treaty of April 1895, just as Takeshima’s annexation preceded the annexation of Korea itself.

With this historic recognition, in addition to the security danger discussed above, it is essential that the Japanese government accept the existence of the Senkaku Islands issue as a subject of dialogue, while also implementing a credible defense policy in the region. Eventually the possibility of joint energy exploitation may seriously be considered, so that “next generations”—following Deng’s statement in 1978—will finally find the wisdom to resolve this problem.


Kazuhiko Togo is a Visiting Professor at Temple University in Tokyo, and Professor and Director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University. In 1968, he joined the Japanese Foreign Ministry, where he spent half his career in Russian affairs. Dr. Togo retired as Ambassador to the Netherlands in 2002. His most recent publication (with Masayasu Hosaka) is Japan’s Territorial Problem: The Northern Territories, Takeshima, and the Senkaku Islands (2012, in Japanese). For other publications, please visit http://kazuhiko-togo.com.

This Expert Commentary was produced for the Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum, NBR’s public email forum on Japanese affairs.