Main Image Credit In happier times: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right, then foreign minister) with Shinzo Abe (then prime minister) and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo
Freed of false hope about a territorial deal, Japan can take a tougher stance against Russian aggression.
For a decade, Japanese governments have shied away from standing firm against Russia for fear that such a stance would impede ongoing talks about resolving the countries’ territorial dispute and signing a peace treaty. Now that Russia has formally suspended the peace treaty talks, Japan is freer to join G7 partners in resolutely opposing Russian aggression.
On 21 March, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it does not intend to continue talks with Japan about concluding a peace treaty. Such an agreement has remained unsigned since the end of the Second World War due to a disagreement over the status of four northern islands that were seized by Soviet forces after the announcement of Japan’s surrender in August 1945.
Moscow’s cancellation of the talks is in retaliation for the ‘obviously unfriendly character’ of the sanctions introduced by Japan after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although not as tough as those of other G7 members, Japan’s sanctions still include useful measures, including restrictions on transactions with the Russian Central Bank, limits on exports of dual-use goods, such as semiconductors, and asset freezes targeted at leading figures, including President Vladimir Putin himself.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described Russia’s move as ‘unacceptable’. The Russian ambassador to Japan, Mikhail Galuzin, was also peremptorily summoned to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he was issued with a strong protest.
Yet, the reality is that the cancellation of these talks is no great loss to Japan and can even be viewed positively.
A Tool of Russian Influence
While the Japanese government claims to have been tenaciously pursuing talks with Russia, the reality is that they have been stagnant for years. Indeed, the sides do not even agree on what the talks are really about. While Tokyo prioritises resolving the status of the four Russian-held Southern Kuril Islands, which are known in Japan as the Northern Territories, Moscow insists that the talks are just about a peace treaty and that the islands are a separate matter.
The disappearance of a forum in which Japanese and Russian officials simply talk past each other is therefore no real loss. More than this, the cancellation of the talks in fact frees Japan from a powerful source of Russian influence.
In short, so long as the peace treaty talks were active, there was an incentive for Japanese governments to promote political and economic engagement with Russia in the hope that this would lead to a territorial breakthrough. Japan’s leaders were also careful to avoid condemning abuses by the Russian state out of concern that this would negatively impact the negotiations.
To many, it was always clear that Russia was using the territorial issue as leverage over Japan and that Putin never had any intention of giving up any of the islands
Recognising this as a means of manipulating Japan’s foreign policy, Putin was careful to periodically give Japan false hope.
The Gullible Mr Abe
The leader most taken in by this Russian ruse was Shinzo Abe, who served as Japanese prime minister from September 2006 to September 2007, and again from December 2012 to September 2020.
In March 2012, Putin, who knows a few words of Japanese from his practice of judo, suggested that the territorial dispute with Japan might be resolved on the basis of a hikiwake (a ‘draw’). This appears to have convinced Abe that there was a genuine possibility of a deal that would see Japan regain the two smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai (which is actually a group of islets).
Once returned to the prime minister’s office in December 2012, Abe set about trying to make this a reality. He did so by agreeing with Putin to base a peace treaty on the 1956 Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration. This was a major concession because the joint declaration mentions only two islands, rather than the four that the Japanese government traditionally claims.
Additionally, Abe sought to induce the Russian side to accept this proposed compromise by offering an 8-point economic cooperation plan in May 2016. Over the course of the next six years, the Japanese government spent ¥20 billion promoting these politically motivated projects, which included activities in the areas of health, urban infrastructure and energy.
Abe also strived to build relations of personal trust with Putin, meeting the Russian autocrat 27 times and inviting him to his hometown in Yamaguchi prefecture in December 2016. Moreover, as prime minister, Abe was careful to avoid criticising Russia. Japan introduced only token sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and was the only G7 country not to expel any diplomats after the Salisbury case in 2018, when Russian intelligence officers used a nerve agent in a botched assassination attempt on UK soil.
Abe even allowed himself to be manipulated on the subject of the US–Japan alliance. While the US–Japan Security Treaty grants the US ‘the use of facilities and areas in Japan’, Abe is reported to have promised Putin in November 2018 that he would not permit the US to establish military bases on any territory transferred by Russia to Japan.
To many, it was always clear that Russia was using the territorial issue as leverage over Japan and that Putin never had any intention of giving up any of the islands. Indeed, US President Barack Obama phoned Abe on 9 February 2016 in an attempt to persuade the Japanese leader not to proceed with a planned visit to Russia. Abe ignored the advice.
With Russian forces laying waste to swathes of Ukrainian territory, even the most naive optimist has been forced to recognise that Putin is not going to make territorial concessions to Japan
Now, however, the game is over. With Russian forces laying waste to swathes of Ukrainian territory, even the most naive optimist has been forced to recognise that Putin is not going to make territorial concessions to Japan. Moscow therefore had little to lose by cancelling the peace treaty talks.
After the announcement was made, former president Dmitry Medvedev, who is currently deputy chair of the Russian Security Council, in effect admitted that Russia had never been serious about reaching a territorial deal. In his words:
Obviously, we would never have found any consensus with Japan on the island issue … Negotiations about the Kurils always had a ritualistic character. The new version of the constitution of the Russian Federation [which was introduced in 2020] directly states that our country’s territories are not subject to alienation. The question is closed.
Free to Take a Tougher Stance
Without the burden of peace treaty talks, the Japanese government is at liberty to adopt a tougher stance in opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Prime Minister Kishida has already made a good start, but Japan’s sanctions still lag those of G7 partners in some areas.
For instance, Japan is yet to ban Russian planes from its airspace. Sberbank, Russia’s largest lender, is also not subject to Japanese sanctions. Moreover, Japanese firms have resisted calls for them to join Western oil majors in divesting from energy projects on Russia’s Sakhalin Island. These gaps should now be closed.
Last, there will undoubtedly come a time when Russia will try to rekindle Japanese hopes and once again attempt to use the territorial dispute to extract political and economic concessions. Having fallen for the trick once, Japan’s leaders must be wise to it next time.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.