Peace on the rocks
The row between Japan and Russia over ownership of the tiny Kuril Islands
obscures the first direct conflict between great powers in the post-Cold War
world, argues Daniel Nassim
The squabble between Japan and Russia over the fate of four tiny islands
appears bizarre. Both countries would seem to have every interest in defrosting
their relationship in the aftermath of the Cold War. Yet the fate of the
islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai seems to keep relations
Despite high-level negotiations and several attempts to make peace, neither
side seems willing to accept a compromise. Japan claims that its 'Northern
Territories', seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of the Second
World War, should all be returned. Russia is reluctant to hand back the
The dispute seems incredibly petty when you look at the islands themselves.
The Russians do earn some foreign exchange from salmon fishing in the surrounding
seas. And the Japanese might like to get hold of the kelp, a seaweed popular
in the Japanese diet, that grows in abundance around the islands. But fish
and seaweed hardly make for an intractable international dispute.
The conflict only makes sense in the context of the more fluid international
relations that have emerged with the end of the Cold War. The Kuril Islands
serve as a focus for broader rivalries that are emerging between Japan,
Russia and the USA. It is the first example of a type of conflict we are likely
to see far more of in the future.
At first sight the dispute between Tokyo and Moscow appears to be part of
a long-running feud. Japan and the Soviet Union never signed a peace treaty
in 1945. Nearly 50 years after the fighting stopped, the Second World War
has still not officially ended for Japan and Russia.
But it would be a mistake to see the wrangling over the Kuril Islands as
the legacy of an age-old dispute. During the Cold War the islands were a
focal point for Japanese anti-communism. Even Japanese school children were
taught how the communists stole them. Today, however, with the demise of
the Soviet Union, it is impossible for such anti-communism to retain credibility.
The contemporary dispute over the islands is different. It only makes sense
in relation to Japan's drive to normalise its relationship with the rest
of the world. For Japan this means throwing off some of the shackles it
accepted during the Cold War.
After 1945 Japan's rulers accepted a junior position in the US-run world
order. By playing the role of world policeman the USA provided a relatively
stable framework in which Japan could prosper as an economic power. In return,
Japan accepted limits on its sovereignty. It would follow American diplomacy,
relinquish all rights to nuclear weapons and even-- at least according to
its constitution - not maintain any armed forces.
For decades the arrangement suited both sides. The Japanese economy grew
so fast that it moved from being one of the smaller capitalist powers to
the second largest. The USA in turn knew it could rely on Japan as an ally
rather than a rival.
But today the basis for the stable relationship between Japan and the USA
has been undermined. Japan is now a first-rank power while the USA no longer
commands unquestioned world leadership. At the same time, the demise of
the Soviet Union has deprived the two powers of the ideological basis for
their Cold War alliance.
Japan is struggling to forge a new identity in the new international environment.
Many of the elements of this emergent identity are unclear. But it is certain
that Japan wants to be recognised as a respectable member of the 'international
The problem for Japan is that it is still tainted by its defeat in the Second
World War. The charter of the United Nations, for example, still defines
Japan, along with Germany and Italy, as 'enemy nations'. Despite Japan's
economic might, it does not have a permanent seat on the UN security council.
Yet countries with far smaller economies - such as Britain, France and Russia - have
seats simply by virtue of having been on the winning side in the war.
Until now Japan has, at least implicitly, accepted its responsibility for
the war. The pacifist constitution is a symbol of this acceptance. And Japan
has frequently apologised to its Asian neighbours for the suffering it caused.
But to forge a new, more assertive national identity the Japanese authorities
will have to rewrite the history of the Second World War. Japan can no longer
accept that it was primarily responsible for the conflict. Japan wants the
rest of the world to accept that it, too, was ultimately a victim of the
The rewriting of history is no dry academic process. It is at the centre
of Japan's attempt to define its role in the world. And this is where the
Kuril Islands dispute fits in, as part of Japan's attempt to portray itself
as a victim of the Second World War. For Japan the islands have come to
symbolise its unfair treatment at the hands of not only Russia, but also
This is what Masataka Kosaka, an influential political scientist, is getting
at when he says that 'we should see the dispute as involving not real estate
but Japan's honour' ('The Post-Cold War Diplomatic Agenda', Japan Echo,
Spring 1992). When Kosaka talks about honour he is not, as many Western
pundits would have it, talking about some ancient Samurai code. He is saying
that the disagreement over the islands symbolises Japan's abnormal international
status, its enforced inferiority in the world.
Japanese commentators also frequently make the point that the loss of the
Kuril Islands in 1945 was not just the fault of the Soviet Union. They point
out that at the Yalta conference, at the end of the war, the other Allied
powers - including the United States - colluded with the Soviet invasion.
According to Masamichi Hanabusa, a spokesman for the Japanese foreign ministry:
'The Yalta agreement was reached in secret by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
Japan did not even know of its existence at the time it surrendered in August
1945. How can Japan, which was not a party to the agreement, possibly be
legally or politically bound by it?' (International Herald Tribune, 21
August 1992) Or to put it another way, why should Japan be constrained by
the post-1945 world order which was imposed on it by the USA?
Japan's angst about the Kuril Islands is intensified further by the place
of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War in its history. As well as symbolising
the defeat of the Second World War, the conflict with Russia over the Kuril
Islands also reminds Japan of the war it regards as a great victory. For
Japan, the 1905 defeat of Tsarist Russia remains a symbol of national success,
just as the Second World War does for Britain. Today Japan's rulers are
keen to rewrite 1945 and play-up 1905, to popularise a history which shows
Japan with the great power status it deserves. Rewriting the past is a mechanism
through which Japan can express its aspirations for the present.
The firm stance on the Kuril Islands fits in with the new thrust of Japan's
foreign policy. The overriding aim has been to make Japan act as a 'normal'
world power, as an important report by a study group from the ruling Liberal
Democratic Party noted:
'Japan's approach to being a peaceable state has so far been the passive
and negative one of refraining from becoming involved in the security and
peace of other countries. Missing from this approach has been an active
and positive stance towards living together in peace with other countries
in a world where all nations are free from fear and want.' ('Japan's Role
in the International Community: Draft Report', translated in Japan Echo,
In other words, Japan, just like any other great power, should be free to
do as it wants in the world.
It is in this context that Japan finally made the ground-breaking decision
to send troops abroad, on a 'peace-keeping' mission to Cambodia, in September.
This move settled a debate, that has raged on and off since the 1950s, about
the meaning of Japan's pacifist constitution. The conclusion is, in effect,
that it has no meaning. In a complementary move, also in September, the
foreign minister, Michio Watanabe, called on the United Nations to remove
the clauses from its charter which define Japan as an enemy nation, and demanded
a permanent seat on the UN security council.
In a different way, Russia's continuing reluctance to relinquish the Kuril
Islands is also a consequence of post-Cold War changes in the world. The
Russian government of Boris Yeltsin is deeply fearful of the forces of fragmentation
unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not long ago Russia was at
the centre of what was widely seen as 'the Soviet empire'. Today the other
ex-Soviet republics have drifted away, Russia itself is threatened by separatist
movements, and all of the former Soviet Union is wracked by ethnic and national
If Russia relinquishes control over the Kuril Islands it could further accelerate
the forces of disintegration. Other republics will be less willing to accept
leadership from a Russian regime which bows to Japan. And regionalist movements
could also interpret such a territorial retreat as a sign of Russian weakness.
There are already many regional disputes within the Russian Federation and
on its borders including Moldova, Crimea, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh,
Tartarstan and Tadzhikistan. As the failures of the market economy in Russia
further undermine the authority of his government, taking a firm nationalist
line on issues like the Kuril Islands has become more important for Yeltsin.
Russia must be particularly worried about Japanese influence accelerating
the break-up of the former Soviet Union. Japan's interest in the mineral
resources of Siberia is well known. Resource-poor Japan covets Siberia's
oil, natural gas, coal, timber, fisheries and diamonds. By extending its
economic tentacles into Siberia, Tokyo would pull the former Soviet Far
East further away from Moscow's control.
Japan is also extending its influence in the five former central Asian republics
of the old Soviet Union. Japan has sent high-level diplomatic delegations
and financial aid to Kazakhstan, Turkmenia, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia and Tadzhikistan.
It is leading a drive to admit the republics to the Asian Development Bank,
and is even opening embassies in the region.
The Russian government's fear for its territorial integrity is far more
important than the influence of a few recalcitrant 'hardliners' in explaining
Yeltsin's exceptionally tough stance towards Japan. The abrupt cancellation
of his visit to Tokyo on 9 September was a calculated snub to the Japanese.
A few days later Japan officially protested to Russia after it granted a
Hong Kong company a 50-year lease to part of the island of Shikotan.
Pearl Harbor revisited
The silent actor in the Kuril dispute is the USA. Although America was not
directly involved in the row over Yeltsin's cancelled visit, it played an
important role behind the scenes. Typically, much of the American press
took a hostile view towards Japan. The Wall Street Journal reminded
its readers that it was from the Kuril Islands that Admiral Yamamoto set
sail for Pearl Harbor in 1941 and that Japan is 'the country that half a
century ago raped and pillaged its way from China to Indonesia' (15 September
1992). According to the New York Times, Yeltsin deserved 'sympathetic
understanding for his decision not to visit Japan' (11 September 1992).
Both agreed that the fault over the Kuril Islands lay primarily with Japan
rather than Russia.
The USA is no impartial observer in the dispute - it has its own clear strategic
interests in the region. Washington is fearful that the collapse of the
former Soviet Union could further destabilise the world order. It does not
want any power - whether Japan in the east or Germany in the west - to dominate
the Eurasian land mass.
Checks and balances
It is for this reason that the USA seems to be tilting towards an informal
alliance with Russia at present. Such a partnership could be a good way
for Washington to stall the development of Japanese influence. As a CIA-backed
report stated last year: 'For the United States, France and the United Kingdom
a democratic Russia could play an important role as a counterbalance to
Germany's and Japan's increasing influence in a system of global stability
in East Europe and the Pacific region.' (Report on Russia, 29 May
The dispute over the Kuril Islands demonstrates the reality behind all the
rhetoric about a New World Order. There is no new age of peace and prosperity.
Instead the world is entering an era of great power rivalries, in which
the fate of a few rocks can provoke a major international dispute.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993