It may come as a surprise to hear†that, officially, World War II has†not yet ended between Japan and†the Soviet Unionís successor state, the Russian Federation. The main sticking point that has prevented a permanent peace treaty from being signed is a dispute over the ownership of the southern portion of the Kuril Island chain.



In the past, the islands, along with the nearby, larger Sakhalin Island, have been controlled by both Japan and Russia. In the 19th century, Japan conceded claims to Sakhalin Island in return for control of the entire Kuril†Island chain (known as the Chishima Islands in Japan). Then, in the Russo- Japanese War, Japan gained control of the southern half of Sakhalin Island. However, Russia was able to have the last word when, in the closing act of World War II, the Soviet Union retook all the Kuril Islands and the southern half of Sakhalin Island.




The language in the San Fran- cisco Peace Treaty between the Allied Powers and Japan is ambiguous as to who should control the islands, and has therefore been subject to debate over the past 60 years; because of this impasse, four islands in the Kuril Chain†are claimed by both countries.

Throughout the Cold War, Japanese overtures to regain the islands from the Soviet Union went largely unanswered, but progress was made after the Soviet Union collapsed. When in 1991 the new Russian Federation began to transition economically from central planning to free markets, the economy of the Kuril Islands suffered greatly: supply chains broke down and the main industry, fishing, could not continue due to a lack of cardboard boxes. In this dire economic situation, Japanese offers to reclaim the islands†suddenly became more appealing.

Travel restrictions between the Kuril Islands and Japan were eased in the early 1990s, and the Russian government even offered to return two of the islands. However, the Japanese turned down this offer, claiming they would accept nothing less than all four of the southern islands in contention. Now, with Russiaís economy booming due to oil revenues, there is little prospect of any of the islands being returned. A 2012 visit to the islands by then-President Dmitry Medvedev demonstrates the Russian governmentís desire to stimulate Russian nationalism by asserting that the Kuril


Islands will remain in Russian hands. Though this increasingly hard line taken by Moscow is an indication of Russiaís growing assertiveness, the governmentís tough political stance belies the true state of Russiaís Far†East. The economic backwater that is the Kuril Islands, and the Russian Far East in general, profits from increased oil revenue, but is still worlds away from neighboring Japan, which boasts a highly advanced economy and one of the highest standards of living in the world. Political reconciliation could significantly increase Japanese investment in the Russian Far East, helping spur growth in this remote region.

The forced relocation of Japanese people after the loss of the Kuril Islands also complicates the situation: after 1945, 17,000 Japanese civilians who lived on the Kuril Islands were forced to return to Japan. Though less than half of this community is still alive today, they have created a vocal political group in Japan that pressures the government to take action on the territorial dispute. Due to the nationalist character of such disputes, there is a worrying possibility that Japanís small but increasingly fanatical far-right movement could use the Kuril Island dispute to create an international incident not unlike the recent international spat between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands. Resolution of†this issue would deprive conservative Japanese radicals of another means by which they could seek to stoke nation- alistic fervor.



The never-ending dispute over the Kuril Islands is of disadvantage to both Russia and Japan: the resolution of the dispute would allow Japanese investment to improve the economy and living standards in Russiaís far-flung province. For Japan, settlement of the issue would help weaken bumptious far-right groups that have the potential to complicate domestic politics and spark international crises. Perhaps most importantly, an official peace treaty would finally close the book on many painful memories of World War II, allowing both sides to move into a new era of cooperation and growth.