The key document in Russian-Japanese relations, the Joint Declaration of 1956, turns 65 on October 19. Another anniversary of frustrated hopes for an outright settlement of bilateral relations after World War II. In the late 1950s, the Declaration became a symbol of political compromise between the two states, while present-day vague prospects for its full implementation demonstrate irreconcilable differences hindering the Russian-Japanese political dialogue. Why is that?
In October 1956, a Japanese delegation headed by Prime Minister Ichiro Hatayama arrived in Moscow following a number of preliminary negotiations. The prime minister was semi-paralyzed after a stroke and was hardly ambulant, but did hold final talks with USSR's First Secretary of the ruling Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev, which yielded a joint declaration on terminating war and on some other bilateral aspects. It was decided to revisit the vital post-war issue of territorial demarcation, i.e. border establishment between the two states, in the future and fix it in a peace treaty.
Thus, the draft declaration skipped Japan's sought-after transfer of southern Kuril Islands of Habomai, Kunashir, Iturup and Shikotan, although the Soviet side previously alluded to such a possibility, encircling it with a number of conditions like the rejoining of US-occupied Okinawa to Japan.
Nevertheless, Hatoyama's right-hand man and closest political ally, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ichiro Kono, who was the negotiation's engine to substitute for the ailing prime minister, asked for another face-to-face meeting with Khrushchev. The latter agreed. Here is what came of it.
These are excerpts from the minutes of the conversation between Khrushchev and Kono on October 16, 1956:
Kono. We strongly request that the Soviet government immediately return the Habomai and Shikotan islands to us, without linking this with other issues.
Khrushchev. The Soviet government agrees to hand over Habomai and Shikotan. This can be recorded in a relevant document and openly declared. The Soviet government will legally renounce its rights to these islands, but in practice the transfer will only follow a peace treaty, and after Okinawa and other US-controlled territories are returned to Japan. We do not want inequality in this regard. Why does the United States hold the Japanese islands in its hands, build military bases targeted against us, and demand that we give Japan the territories belonging to us? It's not fair.
Kono. Does the Soviet government agree to return Kunashir and Iturup to us once the United States withdraws from Okinawa?
Khrushchev. I didn't know the Japanese were so persistent. You hammer away at one and the same point.
Kono. Kunashir and Iturup certainly have no essential economic value to Japan. But if we had an opportunity to launch a movement in the country for returning Okinawa and other territories, linking this issue with rejoining of Kunashir and Iturup, we might have succeeded, because the argument about Japan's simultaneous return of its territories controlled by two great powers sounds all right.
Khrushchev. Kunashir and Iturup have absolutely nothing to do with it, this issue has long been resolved. Economically, these territories have no significance and even yield us sheer losses, bearing heavily on the budget. But here it's all about the country's credibility, as well as the strategic angle.
Actually, this excerpt contains the ultimate expression of debates between Russia and Japan, which should not be overshadowed by numerous documents, memoirs and studies devoted to these historical events, though containing lots of highly interesting information.
First. Khrushchev clearly said: the islands' ownership is a question of Russia's state prestige. Like Japan's, too. To Russia, these islands symbolize victory over Japan in World War II, they are occupied by Russia upon agreement with the United States and Great Britain as reflected in the Yalta Declaration. To Japan, the current situation is a symbol of an unfair post-war settlement, which Japan considers itself victim of.
Second. The negotiators are hardly interested in the economic aspect represented by the islands' natural resources and those developed in the adjacent waters. It even seems to be the opposite. Full-fledged trade and economic cooperation is way more beneficial for both countries.
Third. Khrushchev's mentioned strategic (for which read defensive) importance of Kunashir and Iturup is critically important to the USSR, especially on the back of American military bases on the Japanese islands. A mere glance at the map to understand that they form a protection outpost of USSR's mainland territory, the Sea of Okhotsk and independent outlets to the Pacific Ocean.
Fourth. Both sides realized that partial or full transfer of islands to Japan could inflame tension in Japanese-American relations, but the return of Okinawa was not mandatory for Moscow, as demonstrated by the final declaration text signed and ratified by the two countries' parliaments. Not a word about the USA.
Fifth. Khrushchev is ready to give up sovereignty over the two islands, that is to make territorial concessions to Japan in pursuit of normalizing Russian-Japanese relations, and not for the sake of clashing Japan and the United States, which is secondary to him and was deemed as an element of diplomatic game with Tokyo and Washington.
Khrushchev and Kono met thrice after that, and on October 19, 1956, the USSR and Japan signed a legally binding declaration, including the following provision that reflected both the parties' interests and compromise limits:
"...In this connection, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, desiring to meet the wishes of Japan and taking into consideration the interests of the Japanese State, agrees to transfer to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan, the actual transfer of these islands to Japan to take place after the conclusion of a Peace Treaty between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Japan."
In Russia, many accuse Khrushchev of having been worn down by Kono into unjustified concessions to Japan. But the Soviet leader was the one to represent the stronger side. And his successors have also repeatedly tried to take relations with Japan beyond formal political contacts and routine trade. Tokyo successfully sabotaged those efforts, referring to the unresolved "territorial issue".
Moreover, the cession of islands resulted from a collective decision by the Russian leadership, taken long before Khrushchev's meeting with Kono. The Japanese politician acted under instructions from the collective leadership, either. Both Japan and Russia were clearly guided by domestic political interests and foreign policy priorities. For Japan, it was relations with the United States, for the USSR it was relations with China. Normalized Soviet-Japanese relations could lead to normalized relations between Tokyo and Beijing to Washington's displeasure. Apparently, the sum of these vectors brought about the final decisions voiced on October 19, 1956 in Moscow.
It's worth noting that the fate of this agreement is quite dramatic, as both sides have long been seeking to welsh on it. Amid an unambiguous bias of Japanese policy towards the United States, starting in 1960 the USSR began to ignore its obligations. Japan did the same because of the Dulles' ultimatum, officially demanding four islands, end of story. A deadlock has arisen, unfavorable for either side.
However, during the Singapore summit on November 14, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin and then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to intensify negotiations on a peace treaty based on the Soviet-Japanese Declaration of 1956. That implies a reversion to Khrushchev and Kono's agreements. This is an important conciliatory gesture, although the only one over the last 65 years.
However, the subsequent peace treaty negotiations showed that prestige and defense insights are still there. Japan does not acknowledge the legality of Russia's jurisdiction over the islands, while the latter remains concerned about the problems of protecting its Far Eastern territories as regards US military presence in Japan. Tokyo does not give up on its traditional claims to all the four islands, which was once again confirmed by Japan's new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida elected two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Russian-Japanese relations are largely based on a 65-year-old bilateral document. And the situation in the Asia-Pacific region, where the arms race and heightened tensions have become the prime factor of global strategic instability, requires updated approaches. And still, the time-honored practice of compromises should not be overlooked whatsoever.