The Southern Kurils are three islands (Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan) and a cluster of rocky islets that lie off the north-east coast of Hokkaido. The Japanese collectively refer to them as the Northern Territories. Until the end of the Second World War the entire Kuril chain as far as Kamchatka belonged to Japan however in August and September 1945 the Soviet military swept down the chain, imprisoning the Japanese soldiers and a few years later repatriating all the Japanese civilian residents. Today, the Japanese government claims the Southern Kurils (Northern Territories) but they remain de facto part of the Russian Federation, falling under the administrative jurisdiction of Sakhalin region. As both sides tirelessly assert their rights to the islands according to geography, first discovery, development, and international law, the dispute remains as far away as ever from being solved. This unresolved territorial dispute has so far prevented both sides signing a post-war peace treaty.
Most Russian visitors to Japan, and Japanese visitors to Russia, require a visa. However, for the Russian residents and former Japanese residents of these wind-swept, fog-bound and disputed islands there exists an unusual visa-free regime over them. Almost nine thousand Japanese have visited the Southern Kuril Islands, and some seven thousand Russians who live there have travelled to Japan on the visa-free exchange programme existing between the two countries since 1992(1). For the Japanese, the process of regularly visiting and tending ancestral graves on the islands became possible and the Japanese guests were also invited into Russian homes and were able to introduce Japanese culture to the local residents. Japanese humanitarian assistance also became an important part of the visa-free programme, particularly after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the islands’ infrastructure in 1994.
The official aim of the exchange programme is to promote mutual understanding and friendship between the Russian and Japanese participants, and reflecting on its successes in 2005 the then Sakhalin Governor, Ivan Malakhov, explained that it had permitted an ‘increasing number of citizens of both countries to meet with the habits, culture and way of life of their neighbours and in this way further the development of friendship and good neighbourly relations'(2). Many Kuril islanders participating in the exchange also relish the chance to visit Japan and stock up on consumer goods and food products which are usually cheaper and more available than on the islands themselves. The visa-free exchange programme has contributed to a breakdown of outdated stereotypes and increased mutual understanding amongst its participants, who now ‘invite each other into their homes as friends, not enemies a remarkable achievement when a few years earlier this was one of the front lines of the Cold War(3).
“Until the end of the Second World War the entire Kuril chain as far as Kamchatka belonged to Japan however in August and September 1945 the Soviet Union swept down the chain…”
The Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Russia and Japan agreed that visa-free visits would take place under the premise of not harming the legal positions of either Japan or Russia in regard to the disputed islands (4). However, too often the programme has been manipulated for political ends. The governors of Hokkaido (including the current governor, Harumi Takahashi) have visited the disputed islands in visa-free groups, the Japanese participants attend workshops and seminars detailing the procedures of the visit as well as reminding them of the Japanese government’s claim on the islands which include warnings about not saying anything that might undermine this, and also the committee in charge of managing the exchange programme on Hokkaido includes the Northern Alliance (Hoppo Domei) – a key group in the Northern Territories Return Movement (5).
On the Russian side, the chairman of the Sakhalin commission for managing the visa-free travel of Russian and Japanese citizens is Sergei Ponomarev a deputy in the Sakhalin Regional Parliament and coordinator of the parliamentary faction ‘For the Russian Kurils!’ (a group against any kind of territorial compromise with Japan) (6). For his part, Ponomarev sees only the darkest geopolitical motivations behind the visa-free programme. He fulminates against what he sees as the inherently political aspects of Japanese visa-free visits to the islands, which he believes are:
“Directed at fixing the dependency of the citizens of the Kurils on Japan, continuing economic stagnation on the islands and neutralising the patriotic feelings of the population, thus creating an atmosphere of uncertainly for the future and, ultimately, the seizure of the Islands from Russia and the destruction of its territorial integrity(7).”
Such patriotic rhetoric again bubbled to the surface in July 2009 after Japan’s parliament passed amendments to a bill on the ‘Northern Territories’ which named the Southern Kurils ‘the historical territory of Japan’(8). The response in Moscow was swift with the Russian parliament declaring that the peace treaty talks with Japan were now ‘pointless’ unless Tokyo cancelled the legislation(9). A resolution was approved in the Federal Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament) denouncing the Japanese declaration as ‘a deeply unfriendly gesture, which is offensive for the Russian people, who are always friendly towards Japan’(10). The Federal Council at the same time appealed to President Medvedev to consider introducing a moratorium on the visa-free travel between the South- ern Kurils and Japan(11).
At the local level, the head of the Kuril district, Nikolai Razumishkin, told a Japanese delegation on July 8 2009 that the island of Iturup would henceforth suspend visa- free travel, stating that it will not resume ‘until the Japanese government annuls this bill’(12). Igor Koval’, chairman of the South Kuril district legislative assembly, also stated that Shikotan and Kunashir could similarly stop the exchanges, stating that ‘we hold in very poor regard the current Japanese law…it cancels everything that was achieved over the last 17 years with the exchange between our citizens’(13). Nevertheless, the protests of the deputies from the Kurils had little consequence for the programme and the visa-free travel of Russians and Japanese has continued. Unfortunately, the issue resurfaced again when in May 2010 it was reported that an association of deputies had again been created in the Japanese Parliament who intended to intensively campaign for the resolution of the ‘Northern Territories’ problem. The deputies urged Japanese citizens to use any chance to promote ownership over ‘ancient Japanese lands’ in conversations with Russians(14). This provoked an immediate response from Sakhalin, with an official communication from the governor declaring that ‘to politicise the visa-free programme, at a minimum, does not bring closer a mutually acceptable solution to the problem of a peace treaty’(15).
Even with such strong responses to Japanese announcements, there still appears to be a desire in the region to continue the visa-free programme. At the same time as suggesting that Kunashir and Shikotan may suspend visa-free visits, Igor Koval’ somewhat contradicted himself when he acknowledged that ordinary Russian people living on the islands want the visa-free regulations to remain. He explained that Kuril Islanders enjoy these travels, and he stressed the strong contacts in culture, sports, and the conservation of nature that have been established with the Japanese over the duration of the visa-free programme (16). As for the statements on suspending visa-free travel by the federal organs of power, Koval’ said: ‘We only implement these decisions, but we would like the government to pay heed to the opinion of the local population and not to take extreme and radical decisions that could affect, first of all, ordinary people’(17).
“ordinary Russian people living on the islands want the visa-free regulations to remain.”
Similar local sentiments towards central decision making were revealed when in response to a request from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) the Japanese government agreed to cease providing humanitarian aid to the Southern Kurils from April 2010. Valentin Smorchkov, head of the ‘The Kuril-Japanese Centre’ (the organisation on the Kuril Islands that manages visa-free delegations), declared to the newspaper Kommersant” that it is ‘with a pain in my heart I receive the news about the ceasing of humanitarian assis- tance’(18). According to Smorchkov, over the last 17 years Japan has rendered to the inhabitants of the islands $23million of help a large part being the delivery of medical supplies and equipment, and free operations in Japanese hospitals. Smorchkov is convinced that ‘thanks to the humanitarian aid and the visa-free exchange the lives of 98 children have been saved’(19). As Anatolli Svetlov, the head of the Kuril municipal district, put it ‘the local authorities take no pleasure in the refusal of aid…[but]…if the MFA have notified the government of Japan, we must accept it’(20).
In conclusion, the visa-free programme has been an extraordinary initiative that has seen former Japanese residents return to their place of birth as guests and even friends of their usurpers. Compassion and respect from the Russian side facilitated visits of the former residents to the graves of their ancestors. Similarly, generous humanitarian aid from the Japanese side had a profound affect on the Russian Kuril Islanders who greatly appreciated the assistance at a time when their standards of living were becoming desperate and the feeling of being abandoned by their own politicians in Moscow was increasing. However, in the name of politics, rather than the well-being of the islanders, politicians could not help meddling in the programme and today there is a danger that one side or the other could suddenly decide to terminate the programme as happened with the humanitarian aid to the islands. This would be a shame for the Kuril Islanders who mostly want to maintain their visa-free visits to Japan which they rely on for many goods and services, and also for the descendents of the Japanese residents who want to pray at their ancestors’ graves or for the aging former residents who would like to take one last look at their homeland. When the programme moves beyond humanitarian exchange into naked politics then it undermines the foundations of the personal connections and good-will at the local-level that have begun to bridge the historical, geographical and cultural divide between Russia and Japan. Without such a bridge this Cold War territorial dispute will remain forever frozen.
* Paul Richardson is a Doctoral Re- searcher at the University of Birmingham
1) Borisov, S. (2009) “Japan will never reclaim the Southern Kurils”. Russia Today, 10th July, 10 th July, http:/ / r t . com/P o l i t i c s / 2 0 0 9 – 0 7 – 1 0 / ROAR Japan_will_never_reclaim_the_Sou thern_Kurils_.html , Accessed, 29th May 2010. However, due to the travel costs it appears that ‘wealthier’ Kuril Islanders are making repeat visits rather than all of the islanders participating in the programme (The Sakhalin Times, 22 Sept – 6 December 2001, cited in WILLIAMS, B. (2007) Resolv- ing the Russo-Japanese Territorial Dispute: Hokkaido-Sakhalin relations, Abingdon, Routledge. p.185).
2) Malakhov, I. (2005) Sakhalinskaya oblast’ i Yaponiya: ot narodnoi diplomatii k biznesu mirovogo yrovnya. Rodina, 10, http:/ /
i s t r odina. com / r odina_ ar t i cul. ph p 3 ? id=1663&n=88, Accessed 17th Jan 2010.
3) Williams, B. (2007) Resolving the Russo- Japanese Territorial Dispute: Hokkaido – Sakhalin relations, Abingdon, Routledge. p.83
4) Mofa (2008) Japan’s Northern Territories: For a Realtionship of Genuine Trust. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, http:/ / www.mofa.go.jp/ region/ europe/ russia/ territory/ pamphlet.pdf . p.5
5) Williams, B. (2007) Resolving the Russo- Japanese Territorial Dispute: Hokkaido – Sakhalin relations, Abingdon, Routledge. p.82-83
6) Oratai, V. (2009) Yapontsy otkazyvayutsya ot zapolneniya migratsionnykh kart. Kommer- sant” (Khabarovsk), 26th November, http:/ / w w w . k o m m e r s a n t . r u / d o c . a s p x ? DocsID=1280677 , Accessed 29th May 2010.
7) Ponomarev, S. (2005) Kak ne poteryat’ Kurily? Marketing and Consulting, 29th June, www.old.iamik.ru/ 22380.html , Accessed 18th June 2008.
8) Borisov, S. (2009) “Japan will never reclaim the Southern Kurils”. Russia Today, 10th July, 10 th July, http:/ / r t . com/ P o l i t i c s / 2 0 0 9 – 0 7 – 1 0 / ROAR Japan_will_never_reclaim_the_Sou thern_Kurils_.html , Accessed, 29th May 2010.
10) Anon (2009a) Senatory predlagayut vvesti vizovyi rezhim mezhdu Yuzhnymi Kurilami i Yaponiei. Kommersant”, 7th July http:/ / w w w . k o m m e r s a n t . r u / d o c . a s p x ? DocsID=1200118 , Accessed 29th May 2010.
12) Borisov, S. (2009) “Japan will never reclaim the Southern Kurils”. Russia Today, 10th July, 10th July, http:/ / rt.com/ Politics/ 2009 -07- 1 0 / ROAR Japan_will_never_reclaim_the_Sout hern_Kurils_.html , Accessed, 29th May 2010.
13) Anon (2009b) Yapontsam prikazano pisat’ ukazateli po-russkii. Kommersant”, 9th July http:/ / www.kommersant. ru/ doc.aspx? DocsID=1200648 , Accessed 29th May 2010.
14) Sycheva, E. & Mingazov, S. (2010) Ne pred- met razgovora. Kommersant” (Khabarovsk), 20th May http:/ / www.kommersant.ru/ doc.aspx?DocsID=1371720 , Accessed 29th May 2010.
16) Borisov, S. (2009) “Japan will never reclaim the Southern Kurils”. Russia Today, 10th July, 10th July, http:/ / rt.com/ Politics/ 2009 -07- 1 0 / ROAR Japan_will_never_reclaim_the_Sout hern_Kurils_.html , Accessed, 29th May 2010.
18) Il’yuschenko, M. (2009) Kuril’skie ostrova popali v bespomoshchnoe polozhenie. Kommersant” (Khabarovsk), 13th Aug, http:/ / w w w . k o m m e r s a n t . r u / d o c . a s p x ? DocsID=1220009 , Accessed 30th May 2010.