On this occasion of the Ukrainian problem, Japan should solve its historical and territorial issues


Kuno Jun, Guest Fellow, Associate Professor, Japan University of Economics

It has been already a year since Russia invaded Ukraine. During all this time, I have been consistently expressing my view at every opportunity as a scholar of modern history. The point in question is not to decide which side is in the right, but to use this occasion to start a serious discussion, based on history, about what we should do for the interest of our country.

Being “based on history” does not mean that we can ignore what is going on at present. Even today, the Japanese Northern Territories and the Chishima Islands (Kuril Islands) are still illegally occupied by Russia. Making things straight, let me explain that the four northern islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Habomai and Shikotan were unlawfully occupied by the Russian Army after the end of the Greater East Asian War. The Kuril Islands legally became Japanese territory by the treaty of exchange between Sakhalin and Kuril concluded in 1875 and South Sakhalin legally became Japanese territory, following the Portsmouth Peace Treaty in 1905. In addition to the Russian illegal invasion, the issue of the detention of Japanese prisoners of war in Siberia after World War II remains unsettled, without any apology nor compensation for the illegal detention on the part of the Soviet Union/ Russia in the postwar years. In other words, Russia has been violating Japan’s sovereignty to this day, ignoring the act of violation of Japan’s sovereignty in the not so distant past by the Soviet Union, from which Russia inherited the status as a legal state. (Further back in the past, before the modern period, there was an incident of Russian invasion (1806-07), which is not to be mentioned any further here.)

While it is natural that there are many varying views and assertions when it comes to diplomatic dealing with Russia, it goes without saying that it is indispensable to recognize the historical facts and the present situation in order to consider any realistic policy toward Russia. And in order to affirm Japan’s international position that Japan will protect its national interests from now on and will not allow Russia to commit any further oppressive acts, it is our country’s duty to inform the international community of the violation of other countries’ sovereignty on the part of Russia. We cannot help but admit that the Japanese government in the postwar years failed to make any serious efforts to convey the historical facts even domestically in Japan.

Speaking of my personal experience, at an elementary school I attended in Nara Prefecture they taught social class using a sub-textbook titled “Living in Nara Prefecture.” I clearly remember that the textbook said, “Totsukawa Village (located in Nara Prefecture) is the largest village in Japan.” Certainly, this description is right in view of the data available then about the ranking of municipal areas. In fact, however, villages like Rubetsu, Shana and Shibetoro in Etorofu Island and Yorubetsu in Kunashiri Island are bigger in area. The author of the textbook may have had no malicious intention, but the fact that textbook publishers continue to use such false description and that public education continues to use such textbooks with wrong information makes me wonder whether similar flawed approach is adequate with respect to the protection of our country’s territories. On the other hand, seen from the Soviet Union/ Russia’s perspective, such passivity may create the impression that Japan has no intention to recover its territories unlawfully occupied by another country. I came to be closely interested in the territorial issue in later years, not through school education or forced hard work for the entrance examination, but through study out of my own interest.

As of the Russian invasion of Ukraine this time, first of all, it is naturally important to stand resolutely with the international community against the violent and lawless Russian invasion. Essentially, now that Russia is in a predicament due to difficulties in winning the war and it spends huge amounts of resources in military actions, it is a good opportunity for Japan to retrieve its Northern Territories and the Kuril Islands or at least to lay the foundation for the retrieve. This may sound a little bit indiscreet. However, have peaceful measures taken at peaceful times been ever successful in moving forward the process of retrieving our land so far? Of course, the Japanese Government is not solely to blame for the failure due to its tactlessness, but another big issue is also general public’s lack of awareness or historical recognition of the situation. I do not totally deny the importance of economic aid and human exchanges. However, after all those ineffective efforts on the part of Japan, for nearly eighty years, part of Japan has been lost. Japan must be determined, once and for all, to change its thinking and tactics.

And one more thing to worry about is that there are those who loudly speak for Russia among conservatives, yet they should raise their voices to defend the national interests. In other words, some argue that President Biden is to blame for the outbreak of the Ukrainian War, criticizing political corruption and diplomatic blunders on the part of Ukraine, while putting President Putin’s aggressive acts in relative perspective. In such arguments, actors like American Deep State (Dark Government) appear often and some even seem to collaborate with speakers who usually regard prewar Japan as “evil.” Of course, such arguments did not suddenly appear last year, but there had been already prototypical believers, saying “To criticize Russia over the Northern Territories issue is exactly what the United States wants, trying to prevent Russo-Japanese cooperation.” However, I cannot help but wonder if such argument is beneficial to Japan’s national interest or it can be helpful in promoting the retrieve of the Northern Territories.

I am not pro-America at all. When I was in elementary school, I was taught by a private tutor that “the attack on Pearl Harbor might have been a plot by the United States.” Around that time, I witnessed with my own eyes incidents of the U.S. pressure on its free importing issue. Ever since then, I have been sheerly doubtful about the United States policies. And at the International Military Tribunal for Far East a.k.a. Tokyo Trials led by the United States (although it was partly influenced by a non-dominant faction of the US), many innocent Japanese were executed, which I can never forgive emotionally.

I cannot agree with either the idea of vindicating Russia or the “Deep State” theory. There is no definite proof that “it was entirely the doing of the Biden Administration from scratch,” and I don’t think it is good for the Japanese to believe such a story. As I mentioned earlier, I do not believe in the United States, but I do feel it necessary for Japan to do the minimal duty when it comes to the U.S.-Japan alliance. If not, no decent country would agree to build an alliance with Japan. Of course, through such a process (including international intelligence war), it is necessary to obtain the support of the international opinion, and there is no probability that sympathizing with Putin as things are now should lead to it.

In the modern history of our country, there always has been temptation toward an “anti-American” impulse, especially after the Soviet Union was established through the Russian Revolution. The Soviet Union and the communist power, which were the true enemies of Japan, conspired to alienate Japan from the United States for their own survival. It worked, up until the conclusion of the Anti-Comintern Pact between Japan, Germany and Italy (1937), but after signing the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan plus the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact (1941), the policy against communism was practically abandoned. The failure of the Japanese diplomacy at that time was not militarism but that Japan entered the war against the United States and Britain at the most suitable timing and following the most suitable composition for the Soviet Union, believing in the Soviet Union, a communist state. Consequently, the neutrality pact with Japan was abandoned by the Soviet Union, whom Japan expected to become arbitrator immediately before the end of the war, instead, it invaded Japanese territories without any provocation. And the Soviet aggression continued after the war officially ended. Thus, Japan’s Northern Territories remain unreturned at present. Japan of the Reiwa era must not forget the history of bitter betrayal by the Soviet Union. The issue of returning Japanese territories unlawfully occupied by Soviet Union must not be slighted. After the Greater East Asian War ended, the unit under the command of Higuchi Kiichiro of the Fifth Area Army courageously fought against the dominant Russian Army in Shumushu Island in the northernmost end of the Kuril Islands and all the surviving officers and soldiers were harshly detained in Siberia and thus saved Hokkaido through their courage and sacrifice. Japan must not nullify their gallant fight and sacrificial efforts. In the advent of the tragic invasion of Ukraine, although I am not at all hoping the conflict to last much longer nor victims’ number to further increase, we must do all that we can to solve the territorial issue, which still has not been resolved. This attempt is not Japan’s ill-willed revenge against the unlawful invasion of the Soviet Union committed 78 years ago, taking advantage of Japan’s worst predicament at that time. This is a good opportunity for Japan to make Russia, which has been historically menacing peace and to which the right opinion of the international community seems to mean nothing, recognize the right opinion, based on history, in cooperation with other countries concerned. The Japanese Government should appeal to the world for the solution of the urgent issue of returning the Japanese Northern Territories, explaining how it happened in the first place, following the Ukraine problem.