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by John Sylvester

Territorial disputes among nations seem more appropriate to nineteenth century history than to twenty-first century diplomacy, but some still exist and have the potential to become threats to good relations if not to peace. Japan has four such disputes, three of them centered on tiny islands that are valuable primarily for their associated exclusive economic zones. The other, the Kuriles, is an unresolved legacy of Russia’s belated entry into the war with Japan in August, 1945. The author, a retired Foreign Service Japan and Asia specialist, recently visited some of these exotic sites, and in this report gives us an update on their status and the diplomacy involved.—Ed .

Ownership of most of the good land is well settled on the maps of the world. Territorial disputes tend to be over areas lost in earlier wars (for instance, Bolivia’s claim to an outlet to the sea conquered by Chile), cold mountains (India’s border with China), and islands, some on shifting rivers (Russia and China, or even our country and Mexico). A number of such disputes are over islands in the ocean, often uninhabited and isolated. The stakes are the Exclusive Economic Zones with their value in fishing and possibly oil, and their potential for exploitation by fervent nationalists.

Japan has four such island disputes with its neighbors. No resolution appears likely soon, and, while all four are now quiescent, they could become serious threats to Japan’s relations with China, Korea, or Russia.


The smallest of these disputes concerns the smallest of the islands, Okinotorishima, a few rocks now inches above sea level on an extremely isolated reef 1080 miles from Tokyo, southwest of Iwo Jima. Known also by its Portuguese name Parece Vela, the reef is administratively part of Tokyo City. Alarmed by the steady erosion of the rocks, the Japanese Government has reportedly spent over $600 million to reinforce them with concrete and build a beacon and building for researchers to reinforce its claim to the place. Japan had formally annexed the islands in 1931 when it found nobody else had done so.

The government states an Exclusive Economic Zone for Okinotorishima which would give it a 200 mile circle of economic control over that part of the ocean. The People’s Republic of China has disputed this, saying that Okinotorishima are only rocks, not islands, with no normal human habitation or economic life on them, and thus under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea no basis for an Exclusive Economic Zone. The Japanese Government has produced its own experts to argue the opposite.

Senkaku Islands

The uninhabited Senkaku Islands lie northeast of Taiwan and north of, and a little closer to, the southern Ryukyu Islands of Japan. They include five small islands of about seven square kilometers of surface, in this case with vegetation and some endemic fauna. I flew over them once and was struck by their beauty in a blue sea with crashing waves on their shores, but looking to be no place for a person to live. The Chinese call them the Diaoyu Islands, and on foreign maps in the past they have been called the Pinnacle Islands.

The Japanese Government firmly asserts its sovereignty over the islands, citing a history of Japanese visits and maps incorporating the islands, and their inclusion in the return of the Ryukyu Islands from American occupation to Japan’s full sovereignty in April of 1972. Both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan also claim the islands, again citing a history of Chinese visits and maps including the islands, and formally asserting their position in 1971 as the U.S. turned over the Ryukyus to Japan. The U.S. Government, leery of getting in the middle on this quarrel, has officially stated that it has no position on the ownership of the islands.

The Japanese Government has built a lighthouse on the Uotsuri, the largest of the islets, patrols them closely with its Coast Guard, and denies permission for anyone to visit them. Protestors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China — and also Japanese rightists — have periodically landed or tried to land on the islands, to be arrested by the Japanese Coast Guard, and the Chinese then deported. In essence Japan has de facto control over the Senkakus, but the issue is live enough to resurface periodically in the Chinese press and official positions, reinforced by stories of possible petroleum resources in the nearby seabed.

Takeshima Islands

Called Dokdo by the Koreans, who occupy the islets, and earlier as the Liancourt Rocks and other local and foreign names, Takeshima consists of two small islands of about 500 feet in altitude. They are in the Sea of Japan (the Koreans call it the Eastern Sea) between Japan’s Oki Islands and the Republic of Korea’s inhabited Ulleung Island, within sight of the latter in good weather.

Both Korea and Japan cite a confused history of fishermen’s visits, maps, and official documents for their claims. In an instruction of January 29, 1946, our occupation in Japan specifically excluded them from Japanese authority. Now our government states it has no position on ownership of the islands.

Under the determinedly anti-Japanese President Synghman Rhee, in 1953 armed incidents took place around Takeshima, with the death of several Japanese fishermen and the incarceration of others. The Korean Government has steadily reinforced its position on the islands, stationing police and two ordinary civilians there, putting up buildings and a helicopter pad, and even planting some trees to help make it correspond to the definition of an island under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Tourist ships visit from Ulleung Island, usually just sailing around the islands.

The issue flares up periodically. One notable occasion was in 2005 when the assembly in Japan’s Shimane Prefecture, which claims jurisdiction over Takeshima, designated February 22 as “Takeshima Day.” This provoked a fervent reaction in the Korean press. A more recent incident was in April 2006 when the Japanese sent two survey ships close to Takeshima, the Korean Government reacting with the dispatch of patrol boats there and a diplomatic protest. The issue is aggravated by reports of hydrocarbon deposits in the nearby seabed. The Korean Government, adamant on its claims, has refused to submit the issue to the International Court of Justice.

The intensity of the Korean feelings on the islands, provoked by lasting grievances over Japan’s occupation of Korea, were made clear to me last year by the view of a large and dramatic ink painting of Dokdo in the window of the shop of a Korean artist in an arcade in Pusan.

The Northern Territories

The Japanese Government defines the Northern Territories (Hoppoo Ryoodo) as the big islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu (Kunashir and Iturup in Russian, probably closer to the original Ainu pronunciation), and the island of Shikotan and the Habomai Islets, geographically more part of Hokkaido. Kunashiri and Etorofu are big islands, roughly the size each of our Long Island in New York. The northern Kurile Islands are more like the Aleutians in appearance and climate, but Kunashiri and Etorofu are wooded and more like our New England in climate. The maps of Japan issued by the Japanese Government and companies usually include the Northern Territories.

There is some real economic worth in these islands. Fishing and edible seaweed are of value. In a recent visit to Etorofu we watched Russian fishermen haul in salmon by the truckload as they tried to swim up a river. If the islands were returned to Japan, they would soon exploit them for tourism, using in part the hot springs and perhaps developing the usual golf courses. The aboriginal Ainu lived well on the two islands, and until 1945 there were Japanese villages there. Shikotan is a substantial island with a crab and fish canning factory, reportedly assembling young women from the Russian Far East for the cleaning and packing, and enticing men to try to meet the women. The Habomai Islets are picturesque but only of worth for fishing.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate the great northern island of Japan, Hokkaido, was run much as a large American Indian reservation, with a daimyo in a castle at Matsumae near Hakodate charged with its supervision. The Japanese traded and periodically fought with the local Ainu tribes as they enforced authority on them. Japanese migrated to Hokkaido, until the 1860’s mainly staying at the south tip near Hakodate except for the traders, officials, and fishermen who ranged up around the coasts. Some passed early up to the southern Kurile Islands. The government in Edo (Tokyo) had little interest in the islands, however, until they discovered Russians moving into them.

Cossack fur hunters had gotten as far as Kamchatka by 1700, and discovered the native tribes there with sophisticated Japanese items traded up the island chain by the Ainu, some of whom lived at the southern tip of the peninsula. Excited by the possibilities of trade and even more by the valuable fur of the sea otters, Russians soon began to venture down the islands in their rickety boats. They counted 22 islands, with the twenty-second being Hokkaido. (The Japanese name for the Kuriles is Chishima Rettoo, which translates as the “Thousand Islands.”) The Russian authorities mounted their first official expedition in 1738 under Martin Spanberg, which got as far as the main island of Japan but with little follow up. In 1778 another Russian Navy vessel got as far as Etorofu and discussed trade with Japanese officials it found there. Further Russian official expeditions visited the islands and went to Nagasaki for negotiations on trade and relations, refused by the Japanese under their Seclusion Policy. The Japanese were alarmed enough by the Russian incursions to put Hokkaido under direct control of the authorities in Edo and to put garrisons on Kunashiri and Etorofu. Another attempt in 1807 to open trade by Nicolai Rezanov, the director of the Russian-American Company, was refused by the Nagasaki officials, and Rezanov in retaliation ordered assaults on the Japanese outposts on the southern Kurile Islands and on Sakhalin. When the Russians tried again in 1811, the commander, Vasilii Golvonin, was captured on Etorofu and imprisoned in Matsumae, with the Russians forced to make an official apology for their actions under Rezanov. Moscow, distracted first by Napoleon, then lost interest in the area for several decades. Russian documents of the time described Kunashiri and Etorofu as Japanese, the next big island up the chain, Uruppu, as neutral, and the islands north of there as Russian.

After Commodore Perry in 1854 forced the Japanese to abandon their Seclusion Policy, he was immediately followed by Russian Admiral Putiatin, and geopolitical interest again picked up in the area north of Hokkaido. The Japanese treaty of 1855 with Russia stated that what is now called the Northern Territories were Japanese, the Kurile Islands north of that were Russian, and the large island of Sakhalin was a condominium. That did not work so well, so in a treaty of 1875 the Japanese government was given all of the Kurile Islands, and Russians all of Sakhalin. As part of the awards of the Treaty of Portsmouth at the end of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 the Japanese took the southern half of Sakhalin. Then, as their booty from their late entry into the war against Japan in August of 1945, the Soviets took all of Sakhalin and the Kuriles, and Shikotan and the Habomai Islets, confirmed by our occupation authorities in the SCAP (Supreme Commander Allied Powers) directive of January 1946. The Japanese Government maintains that 1953 San Francisco Peace Treaty stated that Japan had lost southern Sakhalin and the Kuriles from Uruppu Island north, but not Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan, and the Habomai Islets. The Soviet and successor Russian Federation Governments never signed the Peace Treaty.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union maintained substantial air force and submarine facilities in the Kuriles. We visited one abandoned air base on Matuya Island with an air strip, electronic gear, gas masks, uniforms, and buildings all left abandoned to the weather. Small Russian garrisons are still on the principal islands, we being hospitably greeted on Etorofu by a Russian Army band (plus vodka and red caviar). All the Japanese and remaining Ainu in the Kurile Islands had been deported to Japan in 1945. Besides one on Shikotan, there are now three Russian communities in the Kuriles: on the undisputed northern island of Paramushiru, on the southern island of Kunashiri, and on Etorofu. The latter is a substantial and scraggily fishing village, with a number of well stocked small grocery stores. A small Russian Orthodox church is built on what may have been the site of a Shinto shrine, judging from the Japanese pedestals outside for what appear to have been stone lanterns. While we were there, besides the busy salmon fishermen, there was a herd of cows sunbathing on the beach.

The Japanese government continuously raises the issue with the Russian government, which essentially stonewalls on it. In the past they have hinted that a deal might be worked out whereby Shikotan and the Habomai Islets would be given back to Japan, while Japan relinquishes its claim to Etorofu and Kunashiri. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new somewhat democratic Russian Federation, with Putin pushing nationalist themes, there seems to be little likelihood of an agreement anytime soon. The evacuated Japanese inhabitants from the Kuriles were an effective small lobby pressing the government on the issue, but they are now few and elderly. The Hokkaido Prefectural Government embraces the cause, and a large observation tower has been erected on the eastern tip of Hokkaido so tourists there can see the terra irredenta. The United States government has quietly supported the Japanese position.

The Dangers in the Territorial Disputes

There is at the core a sourness in Japanese relations with China, Korea, and Russia over historical grievances, and these territorial issues remain as additional irritations. Economic considerations and the general desire for peace, however, trump the territorial disputes at present. The Japanese government stresses that the issues must be resolved by diplomatic measures

The People’s Republic of China has similar island disputes in the South China Sea with a number of Southeast Asia countries. Formerly strongly stating its claims, China now, while not abandoning them, soft peddles them. It has settled equally difficult boundary problems with both Russia and Vietnam that had earlier led to military clashes. Beijing is more interested now in economic growth and stability, and, even with Japan, does not seem to want to rock the boat.

The Republic of Korea and its nasty northern neighbor will stridently defend their right to Dokdo, but with South Korea having effective possession of it, there is little prospect soon of the issue becoming critical.

The Russians see little value in giving up Etorofu and Kunashiri for the sake of a formal ending of the state of the 1945 war with Japan. They have ample leverage now because of the fast development of the great oil fields on and around Sakhalin. With an unstable Middle East, the Japanese need new alternative sources of energy, and are most anxious to get their share of Sakhalin petroleum and natural gas. That is much more important to them than the return of the islands.

Nevertheless, the territorial disputes are all buttons that can be pressed by nationalist politicians in each of the countries. As circumstances change, the issues remain potentially explosive.

What could set the issues on fire would be major discoveries of undersea but developable petroleum fields in the claimed Exclusive Economic Zones. All the involved countries are eager for possession of such resources. The arguments between Japan and China over the seabed of the North China Sea reflect indications that such treasure lies under the ocean. These rocks and once relatively valueless islands then may have great value, worth fighting over.End.

John Sylvester is a former Foreign Service officer who served long in Japan and Vietnam.  He lived in China as a child, was in the Infantry in the Korean War, and, after retirement, continued to work on Japan and teach on East Asia.

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