Wednesday 25 July 2012

The Kuril Islands: A historical and cultural dispute

Joanna Christou

Current Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev (then President) visiting the Kuril Islands in 2010. He has repeated his visit just last week, to the ire of Japan. From International Business Week.
Lying to the North of Japan but to the East of Russia, four tiny Islands have represented the source of continued tension between these two states since the end of World War II. The Islands, known as the Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, have in fact influenced relations between these two states to the extent that they have yet to sign a formal treaty settling World War II. In total the Kurils comprise of 18 islands, but only the four Southernmost are disputed.The dispute itself represents an interesting case for international lawyers who often seek to dissect the various agreements, including those signed at Yalta and Potsdam, which have resulted in this inconclusive state of territorial affairs. But this case also represents a valuable compass for anyone seeking to understand how cultural considerations can overwhelmingly affect how such disputes are played out over the years and whether or not they can be easily resolved. 
Russia, in recent years has sought to strengthen both its presence and its claim to the Islands. Dmitry Medvedev visited them personally in 2010 and again a few weeks ago, drawing an irate response from Japanese officials and a further chilling of relations. Furthermore, Russia has sought to strengthen its military presence on this Eastern frontier and such is its commitment that it has even formed a Ministry for the Far East, with the aim of not only strengthening its presence but also seeking to achieve development and business objectives through exploitation of the vast natural resources in these regions. This is no divergence from Russia’s recent and current policy of strengthening its presence at its frontiers and seeking a strong position amongst its immediate neighbours, of which Japan is one. In fact this has manifested itself in the East with the resumption of aircraft and maritime patrols in the far-East, a practise dating back to World War II.
Of the 18 Kuril Islands, 4 are claimed by both Japan and Russia in a dispute dating back to the end of World War II. From the BBC.
For the Japanese, economic considerations also abound. The natural resources present are obviously a massive attraction, particularly as Japan does not possess a particularly large amount of these and has tended to rely on its neighbours and allies, including Russia, for energy, or, has promoted nuclear technology which since last year’s tsunami disaster, has come under close scrutiny and criticism. 
On paper it seems that there is little which these two old foes might agree on in the near future to resolve the situation, and in many ways this assumption could be deemed correct. However, it fails to take into account some of the more culturally ingrained reasons for the continuation of this dispute, which, if addressed, might represent a pathway to some sort of resolution. 
Both countries in many ways cling to their attachment as a result of historical factors and considerations which continue to be perpetuated in cultural terms. An agreement reached in the late 1800s meant concensus existed, but it was shattered by the Japanese defeat of Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. Skip forward 40 years and this time Communist Russia was the victor and Imperial Japan was the defeated, humiliated adversary. These historical events may have been a lifetime or two ago but they continue to manifest themselves in current popular culture in both states. Countless studies have sought to dissect the Japanese reaction to the loss of World War II and subsequent attitudes to its own history. An oft cited example is the continued adoration across sections of Japanese society of Judge Pal, the only Allied justice who handed down a not guilty verdict for Japan’s wartime leaders. In fact even former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe openly praised Pal during a state visit to India (Pal’s homeland) in 2007. While generalisations should and must be avoided, this example does represent a valuable example of how historical events and their cultural perpetuation have in some ways impacted Japanese attitudes regarding World War II. Essentially, as some have suggested, the perpetuation of certain historical or cultural ideas results in reducing ‘the area for maneuver in decision making, which explains the commitment of the Japanese to one course’ in regards to the Kurils.
Meanwhile, the Russian point of view tends to highlight the belief that Russia is entitled to the islands as a result of its victory in World War II and the massive sacrifices it  had to make, particularly in the form of human lives.
So in many ways this dispute is about a lot more than just the abundance resources. In fact, while both countries seek to achieve economic and foreign policy objectives, their desire to achieve these without compromise is perpetuated by historical and cultural factors. This does suggest that a resolution could emerge if the underlying factors were dealt with first. There is evidence to suggest that a cultural ‘understanding’ between the two, or more broadly the achievement of some sort of common ground on a cultural or even humanitarian ground could help foster better relations. Several commentators have noted that relations between Russia and Japan reached a high level in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan and its nuclear catastrophe aftermath. 
Obviously, the road to resolving the territorial issue itself would be longer, but when taking into consideration that essentially both seek economic goals, agreement may not be that difficult to reach. There are precedents of co-operation of this type between the two in Siberia, something which only further advances the theory that the cultural element of the dispute is working towards sabotaging any form of agreement. 

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