Share This Article

FEBRUARY/MARCH 2009 — Talk about a never-ending war. More than 60 years after World War II ended, Russia and Japan have restarted negotiations over a still-unsigned peace treaty that would finally bring a formal end to the war between the two countries. Taro Aso, the new Japanese prime minister, and Dmitry Medvedev, the new Russian president, agreed this fall to take “concrete” measures to address a lingering border dispute caused by the Russian occupation of parts of Japan.

At issue are a series of four islands off the northernmost coast of Japan, which Red Army troops invaded in 1945, after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The Russians expelled the entire Japanese population of about 17,000 from the volcanic islands—called the Southern Kurils by the Russians and the Northern Territories by the Japanese. Though some of the islanders were eventually allowed to return, the Soviet Union declined to give up ownership of the area. The other Allied powers signed a peace treaty with Japan in 1951, but the Russians, saying the treaty would force them to give the islands back to Japan, refused.

Ever since then, the mostly unpopulated island chain has been a bone of contention between the two countries; both claim ownership. The dispute is widely considered the reason for low trade activity between Russia and Japan, and tempers still flare around the issue. Last year, the Japanese government required its schoolchildren to be taught that the islands are part of Japan; this drew a rebuke from the Russian foreign minister. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russians have been loath to give up any more territory.

In the last several years, some Japanese politicians, including Aso, who took office last September, have proposed simply dividing the islands into two equal halves. This would leave Japan with three of the smaller islands and a quarter of the largest one. The idea is not very popular in Japan, and the Russians have not yet agreed to such a deal, but it could serve as a jumping-off point for further negotiations.

“We have to define the border otherwise this problem will remain an element of destabilization in the region,” Aso said after a November meeting with his Russian counterpart. Japanese officials believe the Russians are on the same page. “President Medvedev said he has no intention to leave the resolution of the issue to the next generation,” one official said. The issue will be discussed again when Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, visits Japan early this year.