Japan-Russia tensions flare over Ukraine war amid decades-long land disputes

Sapporo, Japan — Friction between Japan and Russia will likely escalate amidst the burgeoning Ukraine war, with the decades-long land conflicts showing no sign of thawing.

The Kremlin recently banned non-Russian vessels from waters near the Kuril Islands – known in Japan as the Northern Territories – currently occupied by Russia but claimed by Japan.

Tokyo saw the move as part of a series of Moscow threats after the recent security alliance between the United States and Japan.

There will be further retaliation from Moscow against Japan, according to James DJ Brown, professor of political science at Japan’s Temple University.

“The Putin regime feels an obligation to retaliate against what it regards as unfriendly actions by Japan,” Brown told VOA News. “Every time Tokyo does something more to assist Ukraine or to strengthen military ties with the United States, Moscow takes some measures to punish Japan.”

He said that as Japan is likely to introduce further sanctions to support Kyiv, Moscow’s retaliation is “all but guaranteed.”

The retaliatory measures aren’t just targeting Tokyo. A Russian man residing in the Kuril Islands was warned in March by a Russian court over his remarks to Japanese media that the territory had belonged to Japan in the past.

Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would visit the Kuril Islands, putting a damper on hopes for negotiations over sovereignty that both countries have attempted for decades.

Land disputes run deep

Russia and Japan’s competing claims over the four islands off the northeast coast of Hokkaido – Japan’s second-largest island – date back to at least the 19th century. Near the end of WWII, the then Soviet Union started fully occupying the Kuril Islands.

Japan claimed that the Soviet Union incorporated them “without any legal grounds” and refused to sign a peace treaty. Tokyo said about 17,000 Japanese residents were deported from the islands. The Russian public, Brown said, view the Kuril Islands as reward for the sacrifices of the Soviet people during the war.

The two countries have held talks off and on for decades to reach an agreement but to no avail.  

The conflict eased in 2016, when the two countries agreed on joint economic activities including tourism projects on the islands, as well as visa-free visits for Japanese citizens.

Two years later, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed a split of the four islands, returning two islands to Japan, but Putin rejected it. Akihiro Iwashita, professor of the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center at Japan’s Hokkaido University, called this Putin’s “failed diplomacy” toward Japan that eventually led to Tokyo taking a more hardline approach against Moscow.

“If Putin had shown goodwill to Japan, negotiating with Shinzo Abe for the peace treaty, Japan would not have taken a critical position over the Ukraine war,” Iwashita told VOA News. “Remember Japan’s hesitation to sanction Russia after its 2014 aggression against Ukraine? Japan now does not need to restrain its policy towards Russia.”

Tensions over the Ukraine war

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow put all peace treaty talks with Japan on hold and suspended the previously agreed economic activities and visa-free visits to the islands for Japanese citizens. This followed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s siding with Ukraine in the war, with Kishida calling the suspension “extremely unjust.”

Japan has been providing assistance to Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, including supplying Patriot air defense systems last year. Kishida was the first Japanese leader to visit an active war zone, to show solidarity with Ukraine and the U.S.

Moscow warned of “grave consequences” for its ties with Tokyo. That did not stop Japan from pledging $4.5 billion in aid to war-torn Ukraine last December, including $1 billion for humanitarian purposes.

Japan’s aid to Ukraine has affected residents of Hokkaido. A survey conducted by Hokkaido authorities and the Hokkaido Shimbun last year showed that over half of the respondents near the Russia-Japan border in the north felt a negative effect of the Ukraine war on local life, including reduction in fishing activities and trade, and human contacts.

In October last year, Russia banned all seafood imports from Japan, citing Tokyo’s release of wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant.

“Moscow used the pretense of the threat of radiation from treatment water from the Fukushima plant. In reality, it was an attempt by Moscow to punish Japan for its support for Ukraine,” Brown said.

In the survey, many also said they cannot foresee a solution for the northern territories, but a majority said they support Tokyo’s policy against Russia.

Both experts said Russia does not currently pose a military threat to Japan. Brown said, “the Russian military is present on the disputed islands, but their role is to defend the Sea of Okhotsk, which is important as a bastion for Russian nuclear submarines. It does not have the capabilities on the islands to launch an amphibious assault on Hokkaido.”

Peace treaty negotiations are expected to continue to be frozen for the foreseeable future, despite Kishida’s calls for their resumption in February this year.

“Kishida is displaying diplomatic goodwill towards Russia, but with no expectations of it being reciprocated…There is little room to fill the interest gap between the two,” said Iwashita.

He added that Russia’s pressure on Japan “will not lead to any results.”

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