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The Northern Territories Issue
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1. What is the Northern Territories issue?
It is clear that the four northern islands (Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu) are historically parts of Japanese territory that had never been held by a foreign country and that belong to Japan under an international agreement.
However, after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration and announced its intention to surrender at the end of the Second World War, the armed forces of the Soviet Union invaded the four northern islands and forcibly removed the Japanese islanders. The islands have been occupied by Russia to date without any legal grounds.
Russia has continued to occupy the four northern islands that belong to Japan without any legal grounds. This is the Northern Territories issue.
The resolution of this issue is the greatest item of concern between Japan and Russia. The Government of Japan has tenaciously continued negotiations with Russia under the policy of establishing true relations of friendship with Russia by resolving the Northern Territories issue and concluding a peace treaty with Russia.
2. Grounds for demanding the return of the Northern Territories
The Government of Japan demands the return of the Northern Territories based on two grounds: (1) historical fact and (2) international law (source: Northern Territories Affairs Administration, Cabinet Office).
(1) Historical fact
- Foreign nationals never settled the Northern Territories, which had never been under foreign control and had been developed by Japanese people as islands directly controlled by the Edo shogunate from the end of the 18th century onward.
- Based on this fact, the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation between Japan and Russia was concluded in 1855, under which the border between Russia and Japan was demarcated between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu.
- With the 1875 Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands, which redefined the border between Japan and Russia, Japan ceded to Russia Japan’s rights to the Karafuto portion of Sakhalin and acquired territorial rights over 18 islands (Chishima Islands = Kurile Islands) ranging from Uruppu to Shumushu.
(2) International law
- The Allies frequently declared the principle of no territorial expansion as a policy after the Second World War, and this principle was carried over to the Potsdam Declaration. In light of this principle, they had no right to ask Japan to abandon the Northern Territories, which are inherent parts of Japanese territory, and there was no international agreement with such legal effect.
- Japan waived its territorial rights to the Kurile Islands under the San Francisco Peace Treaty, but the Northern Territories, which are inherent parts of Japanese territory, are not included in the Kurile Islands. Not only does the Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands define certain terms, but the US government officially clarified these terms (Memorandum of Understanding on the Negotiations between Japan and the Soviet Union dated September 7, 1956)
(Note) The Yalta Agreement, which the Soviet Union used as the strongest evidence for claiming the Northern Territories, was a secret agreement among three countries: the US, the UK and the Soviet Union. Therefore, Japan should not be bound by that agreement. The US government, a party concerned, officially stated that the agreement has no legal effect on territorial transfer. (See the above Memorandum.)
The above grounds clearly show that the four northern islands are inherent parts of Japanese territory and that the Russian occupation is illegal, without any historical or legal grounds.
The Government of Japan’s position on the Northern Territories issue
- https://www8.cao.go.jp/hoppo/3step/04.html(Cabinet Office)
- https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/europe/russia/territory/index.html(Ministry of Foreign Affairs)