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How the Kuril Islands dispute arose, and the story behind Russian-Japanese peace efforts

Here's everything you need to know about the Kuril Islands

FACTBOX. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is paying an official visit to Moscow on January 21-22. His talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on January 22 are expected to focus on the problem of a peace treaty that the two nations have been negotiating since the end of World War II. The key stumbling block is the issue of sovereignty over the South Kuril Islands.


The Kuril Archipelago is a chain of islands between Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and Japan’s Island of Hokkaido. Originally, they were inhibited by the Ainu people. The first records about the Kuril Islands appeared in Japan after an expedition in 1635-1637. In 1643, the islands were explored by a Dutch expedition led by Maarten de Vries. The first Russian expedition (led by Vladimir Atlasov) reached the northern part of the Kuril chain in 1697. Catherine the Great incorporated the archipelago into the Russian Empire in 1786.

On February 7, 1855, Russia and Japan signed the so-called Treaty of Shimoda, under which the Islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and the Lesser Kuril Ridge went over to Japan, while the northern part of the Kuril Islands remained under Russia’s control.

The status of Sakhalin was not determined and the island was proclaimed as a joint possession. Such duality of power triggered conflicts between Russian and Japanese merchants and sailors. The 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg on territories exchanges resolved the stalemate. Under the accord, Russia handed over all the Kuril Islands to Japan, while Tokyo ceded control of Sakhalin to the Russian Empire.

After the Russo-Japanese War, the two countries signed the Treaty of Portsmouth on September 5, 1905 and part of Sakhalin south of the 50th parallel went over to Japan.

World War II

When World War II in Europe was drawing to a close, the leaders of the anti-Hitler coalition, who gathered for a conference in Yalta in February 1945, looked at a joint plan of action against Japan. They also decided that following Japan’s defeat all of the Kuril Islands would go over to the Soviet Union (the Far Eastern Agreement of February 11, 1945). On April 5, 1945, the Soviet Union announced the denunciation of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact of 1941 that was to stay in force until April 1946. On August 9, 1945, the Soviet Army kicked off a military campaign in the Far East. All of the Kuril Islands were liberated in the Kuril landing operation of August 18-September 1, 1945.

Following its defeat, Tokyo signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on September 2, 1945, recognizing the terms of the Potsdam Declaration dated July 26, 1945. Japanese sovereignty over the Islands of Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido, as well as the lesser islands of the Japanese Archipelago was restricted (by the allies’ decision). All of the Kuril Islands were incorporated into the Soviet Union by a decree of the Presidium of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet (February 2, 1946). A larger part of the Japanese-speaking population was deported to Hokkaido within the three following years.

1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty

Japan, which had been occupied by US forces, signed a peace treaty with the allied powers at an international conference in San Francisco in September 1951. Under the accord, signed by Japan and 48 nations of the anti-Hitler coalition, Tokyo renounced "all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands." The document did not specify however, which state these territories were to be transferred to. However, because a number of countries that had suffered from Japanese aggression (primarily, China) had not been invited to the conference, the Soviet delegation refused to sign this treaty, saying it was illegitimate.

Joint Declaration of 1956

In the early 1950s, the Soviet Union and Japan held consultations in a bid to reach a peace treaty. A joint declaration on ending the state of war was signed by the two countries in Moscow on October 19, 1956. Both countries resumed diplomatic and other relations. In Article 9 of the document, the Soviet Union committed to paper its readiness to hand over Shikotan, and the small uninhibited Habomai islands to Japan as a gesture of goodwill after the peace treaty was to have been ultimately signed. The declaration was ratified by the two countries’ parliaments on December 8, 1956.

However, following Japan’s signing a security treaty with the United States in 1960, the former Soviet Union revoked its liabilities concerning the transfer of the islands. The Soviet government said back then that the islands would be handed over to Japan only when all foreign forces were withdrawn from its soil.

Recognition of the territorial dispute in the 1990s

During the Cold War, the territorial dispute was not officially recognized by Moscow while Tokyo was sticking to the principle of indivisibility of politics and economics, refusing large-scale trade-and-economic cooperation with the Soviet Union until it made concessions on the Kuril Island’s territorial dispute. The Soviet side officially recognized the existence of the problem when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had paid an official visit to Japan.

The existence of the problem was later committed to paper in the Tokyo Declaration on Russian-Japanese Relations that was signed on October 13, 1993 during Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s visit to Japan. The declaration states that the sides held talks on the issue of the ownership of the Islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai and agreed to continue talks with the aim of signing a peace treaty as soon as possible, based on historical and legal facts and bilateral documents.

In November 1997, Boris Yeltsin and then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto agreed to spare no effort to sign a peace treaty by 2000. A special commission co-chaired by the two countries’ top diplomats was set up in January 1998.

During a Moscow visit by then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in November 1998, Yeltsin laid out his vision of a possible solution to the Kuril Islands question. He suggested that conditions be created for "joint economic and other activities" on the southern Kuril Islands and a separate agreement be signed on the territorial problem once a peace treaty was reached. The visit yielded a declaration where the sides reiterated their commitment to spare no effort to finally sign the sought-after peace treaty by 2000.

Attempts at settling the dispute since the 2000s

On September 5, 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin and then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori signed a joint statement in Tokyo on the peace treaty matter to express their commitment to settling the issue of the ownership of the Islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai based on all the existing agreements, including the Tokyo and Moscow declarations. The same commitment was reflected in another statement issued after their talks on March 25, 2001, in Irkutsk.

Yet another joint statement on that matter was signed on January 10, 2003, during then Japanese Prime Minister Juinchiro Koizumi’s visit to Russia.

After Putin’s talks with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 29, 2013, the sides passed a joint statement where they agreed that the absence of a peace treaty between Russia and Japan for 67 years since the end of World War II was abnormal.

Two rounds of consultations on the peace treaty problem were held in Moscow and Tokyo in August 2013 and January 2014. However, the Japanese government suspended these consultations in May 2014, following the dramatic developments in Ukraine.

In May 2016, Putin and Abe agreed that it was necessary to develop a constructive dialogue, without emotional outbursts and public rhetoric. In December 2016, the two leaders announced their readiness to begin joint economic activities on the disputed islands. A council for joint economic activities on the South Kuril Islands was set up in Japan in February 2017.

Efforts towards compromise in 2018-2019

Addressing the Eastern Economic Forum on September 12, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin came out with an initiative to sign a peace treaty with Japan without any preliminary conditions by the year’s end.

At a meeting in Singapore on November 14, 2018, Putin and Abe agreed to step up the peace treaty talks on the basis on the 1956 declaration on ending the state of war. Japan’s Asahi said back then that Abe had pledged that if some of the islands were handed over to Japan, it would not deploy any US bases on them.

The two leaders once again agreed to intensify the peace treaty talks at their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires on December 1-2, 2018. The first round of consultation between the two countries’ top and senior diplomats was held on January 14, 2019. The parties agreed to look at new projects for joint economic activities on the Kuril Islands. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after the talks that Moscow was not going to discuss its sovereignty over the southern Kuril Islands. Two days later, he pointed out that Japan’s territorial claims run counter to the country’s liabilities under the United Nations Charter, which says that the outcome of World War II is not subject to review.