Outstanding territorial claims remain a priority for Tokyo
As well as the issue surrounding the Senkaku Islands, Japan has two other pending sovereignty claims which have clouded relations with South Korea and Russia. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says it is keen to resolve the issues through bilateral talks with both governments, as soon as possible, through “international law in a calm and peaceful manner,” but says it will not back down from its claims, believing history and evidence is on its side.
The first is Takeshima (also known as the Liancourt Rocks or as Dokdo in South Korea), a territory occupied by the Republic of Korea located in the Sea of Japan whose sovereignty is claimed by the government in Tokyo. With a land mass of just 0.21 square kilometres, Takeshima, as it’s known in Japan, is a small, rugged group of islets consisting of Higashijima (Mejima) Island and Nishijima (Ojima) Island, yet is of greater importance to Tokyo than its size.
The Japanese government says the country had established its sovereignty over the territory by the mid-17th century, and incorporated it into Shimane Prefecture in 1905, but a major turning-point in the dispute dates back to the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the 1951 agreement signed between Japan and Allied Powers after World War II. The territory was originally not mentioned in the treaty and when South Korea asked for it to be added (a move which would’ve renounced Tokyo’s claim to the islets), the US government at the time rejected the move. “This island does not appear ever before to have been claimed by Korea,” the response read.
Tensions were exacerbated when Korea established the so-called “Syngman Rhee Line,” a declaration of maritime sovereignty which tried to include the islets into its jurisdiction. Tensions rose as Japanese fishing boats were captured by Korean authorities, leading to gunfire and civilian casualties.
What Tokyo argues is an “illegal occupation” continues to this day and Japanese officials are confident that the evidence backs their claim to what it calls “an inherent part” of its territory. Despite three attempts to have the case settled in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in 1954, 1962 and 2012, Korea has refused to agree to an independent tribunal. Tokyo remains firm on the issue: “No measure taken by the Republic of Korea with regard to Takeshima during its illegal occupation has any legal jurisdiction.”
The other outstanding sovereignty claim concerning Japanese officials relates to its somewhat strange (or estranged) ties with Russia. Despite the fact that more than six decades have passed since the end of World War II, unbelievably there has still not been an official peace treaty signed between the governments of Japan and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), only a “Japan Soviet Joint Declaration.” The reason? Four islands, known in Japan as “The Northern territories” (officially in Japanese, Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai).
ties with moscow
For Tokyo, resolving the issue is paramount, in order for ties with Moscow to be improved and to finally see a peace treaty signed, all these decades on. All the while, with the issue pushed into the background, trade and relations between the two nations have improved, yet Tokyo says the issue is holding back a “real strategic partnership” that would improve the “peace and stability of the region.”
Japan says the Soviet Union “invaded” the territory in 1945, after Joseph Stalin had broken the 1941 Neutrality Pact between the two nations. And while Japan accepts it gave up its claims to the nearby Kurile Islands and the southern part of Sakhalin in the 1951 treaty, the four islands in question were not part of that deal, it argues.
In 1956, the Soviet Union agreed to hand over Habomai and Shikotan after the signing of a peace treaty, but by the time President Mikhail Gorbachev became the first Soviet leader to visit Japan in 1991, the issue was still outstanding. Despite improved relations, cooperation over travel to the islands and prime ministerial and presidential visits between the nations (including a summit between Japanese PM Abe and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in December last year), the two are still yet to progress definitively on the issue — or to sign that elusive peace treaty.