The four islands were first mentioned in official Russian-Japanese relations in the Semod Treaty, which was signed in February 1855. Under the accord, the Southern Kuriles were declared part of Japan. In May 1875, the two countries signed another treaty that gave Russia control of Sakhalin Island in exchange for Russia renouncing claims to all 18 islands in the Kurile chain. Following the Russo-Japanese War, which ended in a decisive defeat for Russia, the two countries signed the Portsmouth Treaty, in which Russia pledged to renounce forever its claims to the Southern Kuriles. The Japanese, incidentally, have never considered the four islands to be part of the Kurile chain, but instead view them as associated with Japan's Hokkaido Island.
In April 1941, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin negotiated a treaty with imperial Japan on mutual neutrality in the fighting in Asia. That agreement alleviated Moscow's concerns about a possible second front in the Far East in the event of war with Germany. The war broke out when Germany attacked the Soviet Union just two months later. The treaty also untied Japan's hands and in December 1941, a Japanese fleet based near the Kuriles attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, drawing the United States into the war.
At the Yalta conference in February 1945, Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would join the Allies in the war against Japan in exchange for eventual Soviet control of the southern part of Sakhalin Island and of the Kuriles. During the conference, Stalin did not reassert old claims that the territories belonged to Russia, but spoke of them openly as trophies and as compensation for Russia's humiliating defeat during the Russo-Japanese War.
In his address to the Soviet Union on the day that Japan surrendered, 2 September 1945, Stalin said: "The defeat of Russian forces in 1904 left a painful memory in the conscience of our people and a black stain on [on the reputation of] our country. For 40 years, we, the people of the older generation, have waited for this day, and now this day has come. It means that southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands will become part of the Soviet Union."
Until his death in 1953, Stalin stifled any talk of returning the disputed islands to Japan, repeating often that "the Soviet Union is a big country, but we have no extra land." In February 1946, the Soviet Union formally incorporated the southern Kuriles into its national territory. In September 1951, the Soviet Union declined to sign the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which the other Allies signed with Japan. Under that treaty, Japan agreed to renounce its claims to what it considered the Kurile Islands. However, the four disputed islands were not mentioned in the document because, as noted above, Japan believes they belong to the Hokkaido Island group.
However, a new chapter in bilateral relations was opened in October 1956, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed a joint declaration that reestablished diplomatic relations between the two countries and postulated that following the signing of peace treaty, two of the disputed islands -- Shikotan and Habomai -- would be transferred to Japan. But at the peak of the Cold War in January 1960, the Soviet Union backed away from this declaration and said that there were no remaining territorial issues between the two countries.
This remained the status quo until August 1991, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev again acknowledged the dispute over the Southern Kuriles and the necessity of resolving. Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Japan in October 1993 and in April 1998, speaking on both trips of the possibility of a quick solution "based on historical and legal facts." He predicted that a peace treaty would be completed by 2000.
The latest contretemps surrounding the Kurile question came on 11 November 2004, when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told NTV that Russia, as the successor to the Soviet Union, recognizes the 1956 agreement and Moscow's obligation to transfer the two islands to Tokyo. "But with this we should put a period to the territorial problem," Lavrov said. The following day, President Vladimir Putin added enigmatically that Russia "is ready to fulfill its obligations, but only to the extent that the other party is also willing to fulfill its obligations," RTR reported. "But, as we all know, we have not yet reached a mutual understanding of what these obligations are," Putin added.
According to Japanese media, Tokyo's position on the disputed islands has remained consistent throughout the entire period. According to the website japantoday.ru, Japan considers the islands historically and geographically part of Japan's northern territories, which were occupied by Soviet forces during World War II. Japan does not recognize agreements made at the Yalta Conference, to which it was not a party, and does not believe that agreements adopted by the Allies during the war can be considered part of the legal foundation for a peace treaty.
On 22 February, Japan's parliament adopted a resolution that called on the government to intensify its efforts to return the four islands and "other northern territories" to Japan, infonews.ru reported. Asked what the unnamed "other northern territories" referred to, an unnamed source in the Japanese legislature said the term was adopted in order to reach a consensus among all factions, including the Communists, which are calling for Japanese control over all 18 major Kurile islands.
On 20 April, after a long delay, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, announced that he will attend the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe in Moscow on 9 May, the Kyodo news agency reported. However, he added that while he is in Moscow, he will raise the unsettled issue of the islands once again.
Clearly, three generations of post-war Japanese have become so committed to the idea that the "occupied northern territories" must be returned that no Japanese government can ignore this sentiment. Russian nationalist author Maksim Kalashnikov, described the feelings of Japanese patriots in his 2004 book "The Wrath of Ork": "We should understand the Japanese, who still consider that the Russians betrayed them during World War II. They honestly did not attack us when Hitler's troops were near Moscow, allowing Stalin to redeploy fresh troops from the Far East. And they did not attack us in 1942, when Nazi troops were near the Volga and the Caucasus. Nonetheless, we attacked them in August 1945, we captured their islands and now, having devastated our own land, we are unwilling to return land which is not ours. So what kind of allies can we look like after all that?"
Passions over the issue are equally inflamed on the Russian side, as most polls show that an overwhelming majority of Russian oppose returning any of the islands. During the legislative elections in Sakhalin Oblast in October 2004, a bloc called Our Motherland Sakhalin and the Kuriles, which is affiliated with the nationalist Motherland party, made a strong showing with 19.9 percent of the vote. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party came in second with 17.72 percent, while the Communists polled third with 15.87 percent. Like the bloc, both these parties categorically reject all proposals to return the disputed islands to Japan.
Moscow's position regarding the islands is supported by China and South Korea, both of which have their own territorial disputes with Japan. In recent years, Moscow has begun using its energy-export policies to compel China and Japan to compete for closer relations with Russia. The main tool for this strategy was the route of a new strategic oil pipeline from eastern Siberia (Irkutsk Oblast) to the Far East.
Until last year, Moscow seemed to prefer a route from Angarsk to the Chinese city of Datsin. However, following the October 2004 arrest of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, who had lobbied this option and who advocated the construction of a private, Yukos-owned pipeline, the Kremlin decided that the pipeline would bypass China and run to the Russian port of Nakhodka, from which most of the oil would be exported to Japan, South Korea, and global markets. Moscow offered China some compensation in the form of increased rail exports.
But in January, a consortium of Chinese banks offered state-owned Rosneft a $6 billion loan to purchase Yukos's main production subsidiary, Yuganskneftegaz. Shortly thereafter, Moscow decided to construct a branch of the pipeline to Datsin, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 26 April and vazhno.ru reported on 28 April.
Despite Moscow's decision to build the main pipeline along the route preferred by Tokyo, there seems to be no movement on the issue of the disputed islands, which remain the epicenter of bilateral relations. This problem, shaped by Stalin 60 years ago, seems to remain as intractable as ever.