Japan condemns Russian naval exercises around disputed Kuril Islands

Japan condemns Russian naval exercises around disputed Kuril Islands

Japan has protested against Russian plans to hold military exercises off the disputed Kuril Islands chain, which was seized by the Soviet Union after the end of the war in 1945.

Russia said the naval drills would start next week in the sea off Kunashiri, the most southerly of the Kurils.

Japanese chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Tokyo had protested in response to Russia’s announcement.

Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the southern Kuril Islands are a sovereign part of Japan.

He told the Diet the Kurils are “original territories of Japan”.

The Kurils dispute is a key reason Tokyo and Moscow never signed a peace treaty and, technically, are still at war, ever since Russia declared war on Japan at the end of the Second World War.

Russia continues to claim ownership of the islands and says it has no intention of giving them back to Japan while refusing to discuss the matter.

The volcanic archipelago is around 1,300km northeast of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in the Sea of Okhotsk. The chain has 56 islands. Japan claims the four southernmost islands.

The Kurils were invaded by the Soviet Union in late August 1945 two weeks after Japan’s surrender after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese have ever since condemned the invasion as treacherous and illegal.

The Japanese population was expelled and replaced by Russian settlers. The Kurils struggled economically despite playing an important strategic role during the Cold War. The islands also have rich offshore fishing grounds.
In 1956, Moscow agreed to hand back a few of the islands, including the small Shikotan and the Habomai islets, in exchange for a peace treaty. The offer was rejected by Tokyo in the hope that Japanese investment in Russia’s Pacific region could persuade the Kremlin to return more territory.
Russia’s growing economy has weakened Tokyo’s bargaining power, although the war with Ukraine might strengthen Japan’s position.
Japan and Russia agreed in 2018 to embark on joint economic projects on the islands, including sea urchin and strawberry farming, to build bilateral ties.
It has been reported that Tokyo is now prepared to consider accepting the 1956 offer and abandoning hope of retrieving the larger islands of Kunashir and Iturup.
But a sticking point is the demand that Japan must accept Russian sovereignty over the other seized islands.

The Kurils. Picture credit: Wikimedia

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