Japanese Foreign Ministry Europe Department Director Hideki Uyama said, Russia occupied the southern part of the Kuril Islands, which contradicts international law, as well as the invasion of Ukraine. The Japanese authorities have been refraining from the term "occupation" in recent years, instead preferring to say that "these islands are covered by the Japanese sovereignty."
He said, "The Northern Territories are occupied by Russia, and we believe that this contradicts the international law, as well as the ongoing attack of the Russian army on Ukraine."
As a response, Moscow said that Japan is whipping up ‘hysteria’ in the dispute over the Kuril Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, ''To me, it seems that the Japanese leadership allocates all of its time that could be spent on building normal, fully-fledged economic, financial, and cultural ties with our country to fixate on this issue.'' Additionally, Washington’s new ambassador in Tokyo, Rahm Emanuel said ''Russia's disregard for the sovereignties of others is also not new, nor is it limited to the Northern Territories.''
Russian President Vladimir Putin had said Moscow will be offering tax breaks to stimulate business on a disputed Pacific island chain and make them available to foreign investors including from Japan.
Putin said Moscow needed to take into account its own security and that it wanted guarantees from Japan, a US ally, about possible deployments of US military and missile systems in the region near Russia. "These questions have been put to the Japanese side. We still haven't received the answers so I think that in a sense the ball is in our partner's court."
Recently, Russia has deployed its Bastion coastal missile defense system to a remote part of the Kuril island chain in the Pacific near Japan. The country passed sweeping legislative reforms that, among an array of other things, made it unconstitutional to cede territory to a foreign power.
Even with everyone's attention at the Russian-Ukrainian border, tensions 5,000 miles to the east between Moscow and Tokyo over the contested Kuril Islands are not abating. And inevitably the conflicts are connected. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said he will "persistently continue" negotiations with Moscow on the return of the Northern Territories. The United States, Japan's main ally, has publicly supported the demands, recognizing Tokyo's sovereignty over the islands due north of the capital and off the eastern coast of Russia's Far East territories.
The Russians have responded with saber-rattling, starting military exercises in the Kuril Islands, which prompted an indignant response from Tokyo and a resolution approved by the Japanese parliament in support of Ukraine against the backdrop of the fight with Russia. This all means that Russian-Japanese relations through the Kurils are deteriorating rapidly.
Russia has augmented its provocations of military planes or ships entering Japan's air and sea space. In addition, the announcement of the Russia-China alliance also takes aim at Japan, with Beijing as Tokyo's main regional rival.
On February 16, Kishida spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, over the phone to offer support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The following day, after a 20-minute phone conversation with Putin, Kishida stopped short of confirming whether Japan would join the U.S.-led sanctions. He appealed for a diplomatic solution, saying, “Rather than changing the status quo by force Russia should pursue a solution through negotiations that is acceptable to the international community.”
The Kurils have never been peaceful. Hundreds of years ago, the indigenous people of the islands, the Ainu, fought fiercely against both the Russians and the Japanese. As a result of imperial feuding and agreements between Moscow and Tokyo, the territories became part of Japan, until they were seized by the Soviet army at the end of World War II.
Tokyo subsequently refused to sign a peace treaty with the Soviets, and to this day disputes Moscow's claim of sovereignty over the four southern Kuril Islands closest to Japan: Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and the Habomai island chain. The Russians consider the islands part of Sakhalin Oblast, the Japanese consider them part of Hokkaido Prefecture.
Moscow offered Tokyo a compromise solution: to give Japan two islands (Shikotan and Habomai) under the condition of a peace treaty. But the Japanese refused because they insist on getting back four, not two, territories.
Meanwhile, both the United States and the European Union support Japan's demands to return the territories, while Moscow is exercising its right to own them by building up its armed forces in the Kuril Islands and by conducting continuous military exercises.
In 2021, the Russians fired missiles from the islands at conditional targets in the Pacific Ocean. In the summer of that year, some 10,000 military personnel, including the Navy and Air Force, conducted training in the waters of the Sea of Japan; meanwhile, T-72B3 tanks have also appeared in the Kuril Islands. Over the past two months, as tensions rose in Ukraine, new missile firings were launched on Kunashir Island east of Hokkaido near La Perouse Strait, provoking considerable Japanese irritation. Hirokazu Matsuno, Secretary-General of the Cabinet of Ministers, said: "Further Russian militarization of the islands is unacceptable."
On Feb. 12, an American submarine monitored Russian exercises in the Kuril Islands, and the U.S. military attaché in Moscow summoned the Russian Defense Ministry over the incident. Though small, the islands are strategic. They make it easier for Moscow to get its ships into the Pacific Ocean from the Sea ofOkhotsk, especially in the winter. The second reason is regional security.
Moscow is worried that Tokyo will deploy its armed forces and medium- and long-range missiles there once it receives the Kurils. Then Russia's security policy in the Far East will come to naught. Nor does Russia want to allow U.S. Marines stationed in Japan to gain access to the islands. By losing control over the Kuril Islands, Russia would effectively open the gates for foreign military vessels to the Sea of Okhotsk, which Moscow considers its inland territory.
There is also an economic rationale. The Russian fishing industry in and around the Kuril Islands is seriously developed: three million tons of fish and seafood are caught here annually. The waters of the Kuril Islands are considered one of the best places on the planet for fishing. Therefore, Moscow has opened an unusual economic zone on the islands. There are also valuable deposits of oil and gas, gold and silver, and titanomagnetite ores in the shelf and on the islands themselves. On Iturup, there are almost the world's largest reserves of rhenium — a rare-earth metal used in aerospace construction.
Finally, there are the political stakes. According to Moscow, the return of the islands to Japan would be a manifestation of weakness and a decline in international prestige. It would also weaken Russia's position with regard to its takeover of Crimea. Additionally, the Russian Constitution prohibits the alienation of the territory of the Russian state to other countries.
On the Ukrainian-Japanese track, Kyiv has strategic and economic prospects to consider. First, Ukraine can link the return of Donbas and Crimea to the problem of Russia's giving Japan the disputed Kuril Islands. Ukraine has already received a positive signal from Tokyo: in case of further aggression by Moscow, Japan will impose tougher sanctions against Russia.
It is important to keep in mind that Japan's main adversary is China, not Russia. Moscow has become Tokyo's obvious adversary, but a secondary one. Now Japan will not reclaim the Kurils by force. Tokyo's current sanctions against Russia are more decorative, rather than truly crushing.
Japan has now urged its citizens and businesses to leave Ukraine. But despite its pragmatic relations with Russia, Japan is already definitivelystanding with Washington against Russia. This means one thing: Ukraine has carte blanche for more strategic, deep, and mutually beneficial cooperation with Tokyo on the geopolitical and economic track. Now it is necessary for Kyiv to use it to maximize the potential opportunities in its favor.