Japan has issued stern warnings about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has moved to freeze Russian assets and properties; it supports extensive sanctions against the Kremlin. At least 61 Russian and Belarusian oligarchs and officials are impacted.
The Japanese have also pledged assistance for the beleaguered Ukrainians. They further appealed to President Vladimir Putin against the use of nuclear weapons in the conflict.
Next, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida traveled to India to convince his counterpart, Narenda Modi, to turn tough on Russia. The results are mixed but at least Tokyo has nudged Delhi a bit toward a less effusively friendly stance vis-à-vis the Kremlin.
Japan has moreover applied the lessons of Ukraine to Taiwan, which is under threat from China. The U.S. and Australia are on the same page. If Bejing moves against Taipei, there will be serious sanctions for sure and, perhaps, a military intervention. Thus, the Ukraine crisis has served to strengthen the West’s Pacific alliance.
Against this background there looms at large a bitter dispute about the ongoing Russian occupation of Japanese islands in the north: Etorofu and three other islands: Shikotai, Kunashiri, and the Habomai cluster. They are located north of Hokkaido.
The Japanese call them Northern Territories, while the Russians refer to them as Southern Kuriles.
Tokyo still does not have a peace treaty with Moscow to conclude the Second World War on that account.
Japan lost the islands to the USSR in 1945. However, the Russo-Japanese rivalry goes back at least to the War of 1905. Newly modernized Japan trounced the antiquated armies of the Tsar.
The victory of 1905 paved the way for Japan’s imperial expansion. In the First World War the Japanese were our staunch allies. During the Second World War Japan joined our enemies only to crash down under the mighty blows of the United States and our Allies.
Nuclear bombs sealed the deal. Japan was about to surrender.
At that point, in August 1945, Stalin opportunistically attacked the Japanese. Among other things, he occupied Etorofu and its neighboring isles. Soon the Soviet secret police expelled 17,000 Japanese from there.
I first heard the particulars of this dispute from my Japanese-American family back in the 1980s. Twenty years later I witnessed demonstrations in Tokyo in favor of regaining the islands.
Yearly, on February 7, the Japanese government holds an official day of mourning over the lost islands. Moreover, the citizen activists keep the issue alive daily, prowling around the capital city in sound trucks bellowing their demands for restitution.
Now the cabinet of premier Fumio Kushida has routinely invoked Etorofu and its neighbors as “integral parts” of Japan. Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said exactly so in conjunction with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
This is a marked departure from previous Japanese cabinets. For at least 10 years before Tokyo had toned down its rhetoric; it barely mentioned the lost islands publicly.
Tokio argues that by taking Etorofu, etc., Moscow violated the Japanese-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of April 13, 1941. Further, upon its capitulation Japan recognized the Potsdam Declaration of July 1945. There was nothing about ceding the “South Kuriles” to the USSR.
There were similar attempts earlier to re-acquire the Kuriles from the USSR at the end of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reign in the late 1980s. Later, Tokyo put out its feelers to the Russian Federation’s President Boris Yeltsin to buy the islands back.
About a decade ago prime minister Shinzo Abe hoped to retrieve the Japanese lands from the Russians at least in installments. He even negotiated with Putin, while rejecting his request to acknowledge that Russia was the rightful master of Etorofu and the rest.
In 2010 then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedvev visited the islands, the first ever Russian head of state to do so, to stress their symbolic importance. To dot the “i” Putin militarized them. In 2013 the Russians held war games there.
The Kremlin simultaneously encouraged the Japanese to invest there. They are not suckers, though. And now the time for tough talk has arrived.
It all came to naught. For Russia it is a matter of prestige and national pride. Same goes for Japan. Therefore the Japanese find it appropriate to stand in solidarity with Ukraine.
The U.S. can count on Japan. Let’s make sure Tokyo does not stray away from our side again. Someone has to fight our (and their) battles in the Far East.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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