A Short History of Russo-Japanese Relationships

By Ichiro Suzuki While a war rages in Ukraine, Japan is no stranger to territorial disputes with Russia, along with the majority of the countries that share borders with Russia. On August 8, 1945, two days after an A-bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, the Soviet Union broke a non-aggression pact with Japan and entered the Pacific War the next day that turned out to be the day of the second and the last, so far, nuclear disaster in Nagasaki. The USSR’s entry into the war against Japan was secretly agreed at Yalta Conference in Crimean Peninsula in February 1945 among Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Japan surrendered unconditionally on August 15. After the surrender, the Red Army moved into the territories controlled by Japan and captured much of Japan’s possessions in Manchuria as well as the Kuril Islands and the southern half of Sakhalin. While Manchuria fell under Japan’s influence amid her military aggression in the 1930s, others came into the hands of Japan legally. Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands were long disputed territories between Japan and the Imperial Russia. Having closed the country for two and a half centuries under the Shogunate of Tokugawa, Japan began to open up the country in the 1850s for trade under heavy foreign pressure. Following a trade treaty with the United States, Japan signed a similar treaty with Russia in 1858. The treaty drew the Russo-Japanese border between the fourth and the fifth southernmost islands of the Kuril that scatter in between Japan’s Hokkaido and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. 1875 the two governments signed the Treaty of St. Petersburg that stipulated who owns what. Sakhalin went to Russia while all the Kuril Islands became Japan’s territory. Later, at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the southern half of Sakhalin became Japan’s territory under the Treaty of Portsmouth that was brokered by President Teddy Roosevelt. The 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War was a clash of two imperialists. Russia already had strong influence in Manchuria that belonged to China’s ailing Tsing Dynasty. Japan also had a desire to move into Northeastern China. Japan thought that the country had made an inroad in China when she won a war against the Tsing Dynasty in 1895, and acquired Liaodong Peninsula, as well as Taiwan. However, Russia vehemently opposed transferring Liaodong Peninsula to Japan, for fear of losing access to Port Arthur. Together with France and Germany, Russia pressed Japan hard to abandon the peninsula (Triple interventions). Japan relented after all, accepting cash reparations from the Tsing Dynasty instead. At the outset of the 20th century, Russia was eyeing the Korean Peninsula. Korea under Russia would have posed serious threat to Japan. Such a fear prompted Japan to declare a war against Russia in 1904. Triple intervention in 1895 had an indirect impact on the decision to enter war with Russia. The war was fought in Liaodong Peninsula, southern Manchuria as well as the Sea of Japan. In the late summer of 1918, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in the previous year, the Japanese Imperial Army moved into Siberia, along with its WWI allies that included Britain, France, Italy, the U.S., Canada and the Republic of China. They did so in order to contain communism as well as rescuing the Czech army that was trapped in Siberia under the revolutionary government. Though it was allied force technically, Japan represented a dominant portion of them. After other countries withdrew on the Russian anti-revolutionary force’s collapse, Japan stayed until 1922 in the hope of establishing a puppet government in Siberia. This invasion into Siberia cost too much, achieved absolutely nothing and met with international criticism. It was a foreign policy blunder that immediately deteriorated Japan’s relationship with the U.S. and after WWII stood in the way of normalization of diplomatic relationship with the Soviet Union. To this day, the Japanese government maintains that the four southernmost islands that the USSR took away, along with the rest of the Kuril, originally belonged to Japan based on the 1858 treaty and that these islands be returned. This ‘Northern Territory’ issue is a major obstacle to conclusion of a peace treaty between Japan and the Soviet Union/ Russia. The two countries technically remain in a state of war, like the case of North and South Korea. This issue has strong vested interests in Japan’s politics. For former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Russo-Japanese relationship was one of the top foreign policy issues. In February 2014, Abe was the only G7 leader to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. In December 2016, Putin came to Abe’s hometown, Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture. Abe had hoped to advance the issue of peace treaty to legally end the war, but Putin showed no interest in inclusion of the Northern Territory in the agenda, and nothing came out. Having entered the territories controlled by Japan at the end of the Pacific War, the Red Army took hostage of disarmed Japanese soldiers and sent them to concentration camps in their own country for forced labor under brutal conditions. Most of them were held in Siberia but some of them were sent as far west as Ukraine. A total of 575,000 men were taken to the USSR. Of them 257,000 died and another 93,000 went missing. This was Stalin’s Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet regime at the end of 1991, Boris Yeltsin in 1993 was the first head of the Russian Federation to visit Japan. President Yeltsin officially apologized for the brutal treatment of ex-Japanese soldiers. It was a time that Russia behaved considerably more liberally and more in tune with the West compared to its past under the Soviet Union or today’s regime under Vladimir Putin. (President Yeltsin also admitted the Soviet’s responsibility for the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish soldiers in the forest of Katyn, for which the Soviet Union kept blaming Nazi Germany.) It was a time when chance of a Russo - Japanese peace treaty looked as realistic as ever. Nonetheless, it did not come through, and now the clock is turned back to the Soviet era. About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.