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Japan and Russia are only among the major combatants in World War II that have failed to sign a peace treaty fully normalizing their relations. The immediate cause of this strained relation is the inability of Tokyo and Moscow to agree on the ownership of the Kurile Islands, which the Soviet Union captured and occupied in the closing days of the war. This Soviets stance was maintained by their Russian successors which claimed that it was in agreement with their then ally, the United States, at the February 1945 Yalta Conference, the decisions of which Japan later accepted.
In the Russian view, Japan as a result has no basis for challenging Russian control over the islands. The Japanese, on the other hand, argue that although they surrendered the Kuriles in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, these do not include the four southernmost islands namely Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai which are an extension of nearby Hokkaido and therefore part of Japan. Tokyo therefore claims that these Northern Territories are unlawfully occupied by Russia and must be returned.
The United States ostensibly supports Japan’s position; however it did not begin to do so until the1950s when the escalation of the Cold War made it necessary to strengthen Japanese support for the U. S. -Japan alliance. Despite the fact that few Japanese know or care very much about the unproductive and fog-shrouded islands that comprise the Northern Territories, these unappealing pieces of real estate carry symbolic associations that matter a great deal to the many.
For Japanese, the islands call to mind memories of what they consider as an unjustified Russian “stab in the back” at a moment of their national weakness, provoked by little more than revenge and territorial enlargement. Japanese images of the “Russo-Japanese War” of August 1945, fleeing Japanese civilians being massacred in Korea and Manchuria, and hundreds of thousands of surrendering Japanese soldiers being marched off to Soviet gulags have faded over the years, but not completely disappeared.
Similarly they understand that the Soviet assault on the southern Kuriles began after Japan’s surrender on August 15 and continued even after the formal surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay on September 2. Therefore these islands are symbols of national prestige and honor for the Japanese. The Russians, evidently, hold quite different views on the Soviet attack on Japan and seizure of the Kuriles. From their standpoint, these actions were part of the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazism and fascism.
Despite the fact that Japan concluded a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union in 1941 and played no part in the European war, it was an ally of Nazi Germany and a dangerously anticommunist fascist state. It was, in addition, an expansionist one that threatened the Soviet Far East. Japan tried to capture this region in 1918-21 Siberian Intervention, and these military quests across the Manchurian border resulted in an undeclared Soviet -Japanese war in 1939.
Considered from this perspective, the Soviet strike against Japan in 1945 was a lawful act of self- defense against a still dangerous fascist aggressor. Furthermore, whatever Stalin’s reasons for taking the Kuriles probably their strategic value in guarding the approaches to the Sea of Okhots. Russia’s historical claim to the islands is in any case as strong as Japan’s. The events of 1945 stepped up a relationship of rivalry and enmity that stretches back into the nineteenth century and forward to the present.
In the early 1800s, Japan’s northern borderlands viz. the Kuriles, Sakhalin, and Hokkaido formed a tempting target for Russian expansion, as they were unprotected and populated by non-Japanese hunter-fishers. The Japanese never occupied these areas or attempted to establish its sovereignty over them. Conflicting territorial claims, punctuated by clashes and shows of force, led to an 1875 treaty that gave Sakhalin to Russia and the Kuriles to Japan. This, nevertheless, was not a wholly satisfactory arrangement to either side.
Nor did it end Russo-Japanese enmity, which shifted in the 1890s and early 1900s to control over Korea and Manchuria. Their military confrontation in the war of 1904-5, fought mainly in Manchuria, resulted in a Japanese victory, although at a heavy cost in Japanese lives and treasure. As part of the peace settlement, Tokyo demanded and got back southern Sakahlin, which it had never been reconciled to giving up in 1875. The Russo-Japanese war brought only a cautious truce between Japan and Russia.
The Japanese consolidated its influence in southern Manchuria and prepared for an expected “war of revenge” by the Russians. The Russians withdrew to northern Manchuria and hoped of regaining their lost holdings in the south, particularly the strategic naval base of Port Arthur and South Sakhalin. For about a decade (1907-17), the two sides set aside their hostility to cooperate in developing Manchuria and, as nominal allies in World War I, fighting Germany. However this relative peace broke down with the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917 and the ensuing Russian civil war.
Japan took advantage of the Allied Siberian Intervention as an opportunity to to establish anticommunist client states in Siberia and the Russian Far East. However, the rise of Soviet power in the late 1920s and 1930s threatened Japan with an obstinate ideological foe and a new threat to its “Manchurian lifeline. ” Until 1941, a military strike against the Soviet Far East was high on Japan’s list of strategic options and was favored by many army leaders. Despite of the fact Stalin did not start the war against Japan in 1945; it was improbable that postwar Soviet-Japanese relations would have prospered.
When Japan’s wartime leaders faced defeat in 1944-45, their greatest fear next to national humiliation was Japan’s Sovietization. This fear carried was compounded by the rise of the Japanese left with pro- Soviet leanings. The threat, as seen by Japanese conservatives, was less about communism itself than communism harnessed what seen as the long known belligerency of Russia. Dislike and mistrust of “Soviet Russia” survived the decline of the Japanese left in the 1970s, and were not restricted to the conservative elite.
The Soviet Union constantly topped the list of “least liked countries” in opinion polls. The Soviets’ negative image was partly inspired by Cold War provocations and downing of a Korean airliner off northern Japan. This also reflected historical memories and myths about Russian behavior, which had pre–Cold War roots. These negative images persisted even after the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of “democratic Russia,” and up to present Russo-Japanese relations.