Fact sheet released by the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs,
Since the earliest days of contact between the two countries, Russo-Japanese relations have been clouded by conflicts over territory. The "Northern Territories" dispute between Japan and Russia involves the Shikotan, Etorofu, Kunashiri and Habomai islands in the Kuril Island group just north of Hokkaido. Japan insists that the islands, now in Russian hands, be returned; the U.S. government recognizes Japan's claim to sovereignty over the islands.
The Kuril Islands have been a central point of contact between Russia and Japan since before the establishment of Russo-Japanese diplomatic relations. By the early nineteenth century, Russia had established outposts on the islands, and Russians inhabited the northern part of Etorofu. The first formal contact between the two countries took place in 1792, when Adam Laxman secured Catherine the Great's approval for an exploratory mission to Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's home islands.
Under the Shimoda Treaty of 1855, the Russians negotiated a border agreement with the Japanese, which divided the Kurils between the two countries at a point between Etorofu and Urup islands, the same point of division Japan claims today. In 1875, Russia ceded to Japan the entire chain of islands north of Etorofu in the Treaty of St. Petersburg. Following Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, Russia ceded to Japan the southern half of Sakhalin island. After the defeat of Japan during World War II, however, the Soviets incorporated the Kuril Islands into the Soviet Union by official decree and, in violation of international law, deported Japanese citizens from the region. As a result, the Soviet Union and Japan never signed a peace treaty after the war.
Even in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Northern Territories have remained an obstacle to improved Russo-Japanese relations. President Gorbachev's 1991 acknowledgment of the need to negotiate was a significant step forward, but President Yeltsin was unable to resolve fundamental differences during his October 1993 visit to Tokyo. The territorial dispute has not been limited to verbal clashes: Russian patrol boats fired at Japanese fishing boats crossing into Russian-controlled waters in 1996.
Despite such setbacks, progress has been made in recent years towards resolving the Russo-Japanese dispute. In the summer of 1997, the first Russian naval vessel since 1894 visited Tokyo, and a Japanese destroyer visited Vladivostok to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy.
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