Japan’s Island Problem

Japan’s Island Problem

Japanese nationalists rally to claim the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, 2012. (Al Jazeera English)

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Mr. Hasegawa, a fisherman. “I don’t think that the bombing of Hiroshima was a good thing.” Staring at the furious grey channel where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Okhotsk off Hokkaido in northern Japan on a cold, clear day last March, he spoke like a trauma victim reliving the past: “But if the Americans had dropped the atomic bomb a month earlier, those islands out there would still be Japan’s.”

Were I unaware of the chronology of the summer of 1945 and had we been anywhere else, such a comment would make the engaging 64-year-old seem insensitive or odd. Yet on the horizon three miles in the distance were the snow-covered banks of one of Russia’s Kuril Islands, known to the Japanese who lived there until 1945 as Suishojima of the Habomai group. Mr. Hasegawa’s father was among the 17,291 Japanese who called it and several other nearby islands home.* Admiral Yamamoto gathered his fleet there in 1941 to attack Pearl Harbor, and the region was once one of the three richest fishing grounds in the world, replete with salmon, herring, and cod.

In August 1945 wartime Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s cataclysmic losses following America’s nuclear decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, its firebombing of most other cities, and its devastation of Okinawa island in the East China Sea. Equally important, Russia had disavowed its neutrality pact with Japan, and Soviet troops were advancing into Japanese-controlled Manchuria, northern Korea, and a number of islands around Hokkaido. As the emperor told his defeated subjects with staggering understatement, “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

What parts of its massive empire Japan would forfeit were then unknown. In the coming years, an area that once resembled an enormous octopus spanning North China and the southern Pacific near Australia would be reduced to the seahorse-shaped nation that we are now familiar with. But this reality has yet to be accepted fully in Japan, especially among people like Mr. Hasegawa, whose lives were upended by history. They were left to imagine any number of alternate realities.

On September 2, 1945, Hirohito’s representatives signed surrender papers to American officers aboard the USS Missouri. At the same moment, Soviet soldiers overwhelmed the islands that the Japanese continue to call the Northern Territories (yet which are known internationally as the southern part of Russia’s Kuril Island chain). At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Franklin Roosevelt promised these islands to Joseph Stalin in exchange for his troops’ entry into the war on the side of Allies. Within three days of the soldiers’ arrival on the southern Kurils, the Russians began to deport most of the Japanese to Hokkaido, although some were also taken to POW camps in Siberia. 20,000 Russians live on these islands today, and that, to paraphrase Vladimir Putin’s current mood, would appear to be that. Except, of course, for the evicted islanders and their descendants.


The peace treaty that ended war between Japan and the Allied Powers was signed in San Francisco in September 1951 and came into effect the following April. It dismantled Japan’s vast empire, returning the country largely to the shape it was in 1869, the year that Hokkaido became part of it. Whatever detractors say today, at the time Emperor Hirohito was pleased. On April 26, 1952, General Matthew Ridgway sent a telegram from Tokyo to the treaty’s chief architect in Washington, John Foster Dulles: “His Majesty the Emperor of Japan, on his own initiative, graciously called upon me this morning and personally expressed his gratitude … [for] making it possible for Japan to regain her sovereignty next Monday.”

Once Tokyo regained legal control over a redesigned Japan, Japanese diplomats and private businessmen with deep imperial-era ties to the continent resumed unofficial relations with their counterparts in China and what had become South and North Korea. Already surrounding such efforts, however, was the twofold reality of Cold War Pax Americana: an extensive American military base structure throughout Japan—which made the nature of Japan’s postwar sovereignty uncertain from the start—and an end to overt relations with Russia.

The internationally accepted map of Japan today dates from this moment in the early 1950s. The American negotiators involved in its creation excluded specific mention of the islands at the heart of each of Japan’s territorial disputes with Russia, China and Taiwan, and Korea. President Harry Truman’s special representative to the treaty process, John Foster Dulles, kept abundant correspondence, and his records along with those of other diplomats make clear that the final map would not fully commit to naming who owned what—for reasons ranging from real and perceived threats of Communist takeover of the entire area, including Japan, to a desire to cement the need for American power in the region. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was displeased with this gamble, especially in terms of the islands Japan contests with Russia. On January 17, 1952, Senator Tom Connally wrote to Dulles that the formula was “vague and contained the germ of future conflicting claims.”

Official Japanese government map. Courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.

Over sixty years later, that germ has developed and spread: in addition to the conflict with Russia, there is the perilous standoff in the East China Sea over several steep crags known to the Japanese as the Senkaku and to the Chinese and Taiwanese as the Diaoyutai, and the caustic on-again, off-again slugfest with Korea over some rocks in the sea that the Japanese call Takeshima and the Koreans, Dokdo.

The East China Sea dispute dominates headlines because of the escalating possibility of a war for control over the islands. All three countries claim sovereignty amid growing numbers of government ships and aircraft jockeying to protect what they perceive as their space. Japan maintains “administrative rights” over these rocks, which the United States backs through security agreements. Tokyo, however, is pushing hard for full claims that China vows to prevent: “We will never swallow such a bitter pill,” declared the Central Military Commission’s Fan Changlong last spring. In January 2014 Henry Kissinger announced that “military conflict is not ruled out.” In early April Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel shook his finger at China’s General Chang Wanquan to underscore that American forces would take Japan’s side should China attempt to change the status quo by landing troops on these rocks. “We have mutual self-defense treaties,” said Hagel, and the United States is “fully committed to those treaty obligations.” President Obama reaffirmed this position later that month while in Tokyo on a state visit: “We oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”

The disputed islands in the East China Sea are about a thousand miles from both Tokyo and Beijing. They have no fresh water sources, and palm fronds and an occasional hermit crab and lizard are the only native food sources, as records from shipwrecks, fishermen, and workers at an early twentieth-century albatross abattoir there attest. To say the least, the winner of this contest over land will not be eager to colonize it.

In 2012 Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami criticized all sides in the dispute for getting people “drunk” on nationalism’s “cheap liquor.” At the time, the Japanese government had just upped the ante by purchasing the islands for $26 million from the family that had held them privately for decades. The already tense situation erupted into widespread anti-Japanese protests and boycotts throughout China, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in trade loss, and leading to Japanese, Chinese, and American warships patrolling the area. Following months of frigid relations, China declared an “Air Defense Identification Zone” in the skies above the islands in November 2013, matching what Japan had maintained for decades but generating new outrage because Beijing dictated its position unilaterally and issued unusually expansive demands.

Until this recent frenzy, you could pay a local fisherman from Japan’s nearby Ishigaki island around $5,000 to go out and see the Senkaku’s cement-colored spires. This expensive all-day ride added substantially to the fisherman’s shrinking annual income—the sea is overfished, and those still working its broad, turquoise waters often spend the day at the shore’s edge casting nets for little yellow croakers. For real money, one must head further south, deep into the Pacific, where many islanders also work in the region’s other industries such as fruit farming, tourism, and, increasingly, the military.

In 1945 the United States captured these islands in the Battle for Okinawa—known locally as the “Typhoon of Steel”—and then governed them together with the rest of Okinawa, its pilots using them for target practice. When Washington agreed to Okinawa’s sovereign reversion to Japan in 1972, it postponed decisions over who would have control over these rocks, recognizing Japan’s so-called administrative rights but not sovereignty. This remains the U.S. position today, regardless of Tokyo’s hard lobbying and Beijing’s bellicosity.

Oil and natural gas deposits near these islands were discovered in 1968, leading some to say that the fight is simply a resource struggle. Yet as recently as 2008, Japanese and Chinese companies established joint development guidelines. This draws attention to an additional dynamic at play that involves lingering historical animosities, distinct from the new laws of the sea but drawing dividing lines just as powerfully.


The dispute over what Japanese call Takeshima and Koreans call Dokdo is the only territorial contest in the world that calls for U.S. military involvement to defend each country from the other in the event that a war breaks out. Like Mr. Hasegawa’s view from northern Hokkaido out over the Russian islands in front of him, the history of the islands to which South Korean forces moved in 1952 remains more or less in the open.

The Korean troops are still on the island, which leads Japanese politicians and pundits to denounce the Koreans as “illegal occupiers.” Yet Korea permits Japanese people to travel there just like anyone else, provided they too pay for the pricey jaunt from Seoul, involving hotel stays, buses, and ferries that rough seas can often disrupt. With luck, it is possible to be invited as a guest of the regional government and spend a night in a three-story brick house that clings to the base of steep basalt cliffs washed relentlessly clean by the surrounding surf. The unending horizon around the island’s dove-grey mountains nonetheless means that the contemporary addition of massive water tanks and generators does little to change its centuries-old description as an “uninhabitable island.”

Watching the sunrise over the more eastern of the two islets brings into relief the entirety of their modern history at once. Cement fragments of a platform that the Japanese Navy built in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War for a watchtower and communications line that would tie Tokyo to the Asian mainland lie beneath the peak where South Korean police barracks stand guarding the nation’s eastern border today (themselves lorded over by enormous satellite and radio transmitters and receivers). Japan’s 1905 victory over Russia prompted U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to give Japan control not only of this island but of all of Korea as a war prize, leading Koreans to identify this place as the first piece of territory stolen by Japan.

Waves pound the few rubbly beaches where a Japanese entrepreneur built shelters for his workers at the sea lion butchery he operated there until 1945 under Japanese colonial rule. Also visible is a marker commemorating scores of fishermen shot dead by U.S. Air Force gunners during target practice in June 1948, when Americans occupied the area, as well as young South Korean military policemen waking up for calisthenics before being tasked with their primary duty of greeting the hundreds of thousands of tourists who travel there annually and rush around for fifteen minutes, taking pictures and proclaiming, “Dokdo is Our Land!”


The United States did not create these various island disputes, but as the victor in 1945, it drew expedient boundaries to contain a history of conflict, and those boundaries are showing their limits. History matters, of course. Yet the propensity to treat it like a backdrop to the present, rather than learning from it, has helped transform Northeast Asia’s legacies into contemporary tinderboxes.

Some analysts of the conflict emphasize the importance of nationalism, others resources, and still others something called “power projection,” by which political scientists mean the ability to threaten or use force far from home. Yet most have overlooked how Japanese policy takes each island dispute as part of a whole; for Tokyo to give a little on one—including the Senkaku—could mean losing them all.

For many years, Japanese diplomats and their Russian, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean counterparts maintained a stable, if frosty, balance over the islands in question. Beginning in the 1990s, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) began to complicate things with its implementation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), agreements that allow nations to claim sole fishing rights in regions that were long shared. More recently, the UN also introduced the possibility of exclusive national claim to extended continental shelf areas, which translates as the ocean floor, where rare earth, mineral, and oil and natural gas deposits lie. In April the government of Papua New Guinea and a Canadian firm called Nautilus Minerals agreed to open the world’s first deep-sea mine to extract copper and gold at depths of over half a mile underwater.

Taking these provisions together, international laws currently grant national ownership of up to an additional 350 miles of exclusive territory into the sea—with the open-ended possibility of more—all of which makes tiny offshore islands immensely valuable to the states that claim them; they can serve as the baselines for such extensions. In other words, bad luck for landlocked Mongolia. Fortunate, however, for a place like the Philippines, and for the United States with Hawaii and Guam. The era of ocean imperialism is on. It is possible to imagine maps of the future replacing their blank blue spaces with the colors of their national owners.

The United States did not create these various island disputes, but as the victor in 1945, it drew expedient boundaries to contain a history of conflict, and those boundaries are showing their limits.

The island nation of Japan lies at the center of this monumental shift, even if many Japanese­—or anyone else for that matter—are not yet aware of it. Japan’s leaders, however, are profoundly aware of these changes and are making significant policy shifts to align with them, which is where the region’s contested islands come in. By connecting theoretical boundary lines between Japan’s disputed islands, Tokyo can claim a far-reaching ocean buffer. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a version of the map online in April that translates the country’s desired form into twelve languages, and which proponents use to describe Japan now as the “sixth or seventh largest nation in the world” (currently India or Australia). At best, the map is aspirational. At worst, it draws undiplomatically hard lines around Japan with potentially lethal consequences for those who would cross.

The context for this moment comes from 2007, when the Japanese government created new domestic policy that lumped together its offshore island disputes within the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, establishing a cabinet level position from within the ministry to run things called the Minister of Ocean Affairs. Other measures include government-approved textbooks that have increased the number of mentions of each island as “inherent Japanese territory,” and in 2013 Minister of Ocean Affairs Yamamoto Ichita ordered enhanced policing powers for Japan’s Coast Guard in and around the contested rocks, particularly those disputed with China and Korea.

The problem remains, however, that only Japan recognizes Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku, Takeshima, and the Northern Territories. Ocean law makes no determination about sovereignty, and international law summons history as judge in such disputes; the absence of externally recognized sovereignty over these islands prevents Tokyo from using them for anything other than domestic political consumption. Any lines in the sea that would extend from the islands in the north, west, and southwest do not exist for practical purposes—at least not yet—leaving the country’s international borders up for grabs.

The events of this past year alone make clear that Northeast Asia’s history wars represent international security threats, with Japan, for example, marking a 75 percent increase in fly-outs above the East China Sea to greet Chinese jets. Both sides contend that the conflict is rooted in what the region knows collectively as the “history problems,” a term that captures multiple versions of the contested histories of Japan’s empire-building and war. Ongoing disputes over the Nanjing Massacre, the former sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army, and Yasukuni, the notorious shrine in Tokyo where the souls of fourteen class-A war criminals are housed, lead to political outrage, street brawls, and even embarrassment for megastars like Justin Bieber, who this spring created an uproar by tweeting an Instagram of himself at Yasukuni. Bieber, unlike Japan’s current unapologetic Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, claimed ignorance.

These “history problems” stand in for the catastrophic loss and violence that countless Asians endured under Japanese occupation and war. Age has increasingly taken this era’s victims. As of now, only fifty-four South Korean former sex slaves, for example, are still alive, out of an estimated 200,000 women, girls, and young men who were ensnared in the trafficking scheme. As a result, in recent years public outcry in Japan the region has shifted generally from the victims and their stories to the contested islands, which together are the shard-like remnants of the nation’s once massive empire. The islands are tablets on which to narrate the past for future generations, enabling participants on all sides to tell their version of the story. Roadside billboards throughout Hokkaido read “We were robbed!” referring to the fight with Moscow.

For years, the islands remained off the general public’s radar, to the extent that during a heated standoff with Korea in 2005, Japanese politicians expressed open dismay that most Japanese could not even find the disputed rocks on a map. Last December Prime Minister Abe ordered the national network NHK to make new TV programs about all of the islands to broaden their appeal, revealing his anxiety about Japan’s place still in the PR wars surrounding them. He failed to explain, however, how broadcasting stories of albatross massacres—among other juicy island tales—would help Japan.

The disputed islands—especially those in the north, not least because of the lives of thousands of people are involved—have for decades been a core grievance of the extreme right wing in Japan. But these views, often explained in explicitly racist terms, are now more widely on display, as can be seen by the use among some in Japan of the expression “holy war” (using the same word the Japanese use for “jihad”) to describe the country’s cause against the Allies. Murakami’s 2012 warning about the dangers of nationalism came with a further caveat to leaders on all sides: “Adolf Hitler solidified his administration’s base in the 1930s by sticking to a policy platform centering on the demand for the return of territories Germany had lost in World War I. We all know what results it brought.”


Back up on Hokkaido’s Cape Nosappu in northern Japan, Mr. Hasegawa at times appears to see through his father’s eyes. Although he was born five years after the Second World War ended, he described how “each spring there is the most beautiful green grass on the northern side of Etorofu,” using the Japanese name for Iturup island. Further complicating his view over the water, the international laws made decades after 1945 redefined how far into this channel Japanese could fish from their side and Russians from theirs. In short, they determined how Mr. Hasegawa would make his living.

Through binoculars, we watched several large Russians in dry suits jumping from a small boat sent out from a bigger vessel about a mile from shore. The divers were harvesting sea urchins, whose flesh commands high prices at sushi restaurants worldwide but especially in Japan. Blizzards close roads frequently in winter, yet the sea urchin meat must get to market, and an incredibly well calibrated system of exchange and international relations rests on the Russians bringing their catch to the ports of Nemuro and Hanasaki where it is sold or traded for Japanese cars. It is Japan’s easternmost community, and posters read, “The town closest to tomorrow.”

All of this takes place daily in full view of the handful of windswept fishermen who live here but for the most part are no longer able to work in these waters. In 2006 the Russian Coast Guard shot and killed a man from this town who had taken his chances, and no one has really challenged things since.

Mr. Hasegawa and I talked about this history and his memories on the second floor of a small museum called the Northern Territories Center where he now works, surrounded inside by taxidermy specimens of the area’s wildlife and outside by Steller’s sea eagles swooping down onto the ice floes just offshore. The Center’s grounds contain countless monuments from private groups dedicated to claiming the islands: “Japanese will live in shame until our islands are returned!” read some, while others proclaim, “Our forbearers’ honor rests in the islands.” The owner of a nearby ramen restaurant at what feels like the end of the world barely let me in the door before finding out I was from America, not Russia. As I ate his specialty king crab noodles, he made sure that I knew the Russians were stealing his fish everyday. Much of the local crab, like the sea urchin, comes via Russian vendors. His parents and his wife’s parents were born on the Habomai islands, and like Mr. Hasegawa he had fished his ancestral waters until international law took away his livelihood.

As we said goodbye, Mr. Hasegawa gave my eight-year-old son and travelling companion a bagful of mementos, including stickers and pencils colorfully decorated with “Return the Northern Territories!” slogans. By way of farewell, he mused, “If only General MacArthur had come up here right away….”

Mr. Hasegawa is not too far afield in his historical dreaming. The United States is inextricably tied into each dispute. How U.S. policy proceeds over tiny rocks that most Americans have never heard of appears more important than ever.


Alexis Dudden is professor of history at the University of Connecticut. Dudden has written extensively about Northeast Asia for publications such as Dissent and The Huffington Post, and her books include Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States (Columbia).

* According to the Japanese government, the Soviet invasion of the southern Kuril Islands in 1945 resulted in the displacement of 17,291 registered Japanese inhabitants. Of these, 5,281 people lived on what Japanese call the Habomai Islands, including the Hasegawa family. For more information, see www.hoppou.go.jp (in Japanese). Exact numbers and precise dates of how many were removed to Hokkaido—let alone whether additional laborers such as Koreans or others might have been part of the group—remain imprecise. Yet the first organized appeal for the islands’ return to Japan came on December 1, 1945, in a letter from Ando Ishisuke, Mayor of Nemuro, to Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, imploring him to place them and their displaced residents under American occupation control. One of the main complications in all the records stems from the transfer of some of these islands’ inhabitants to Sakhalin, an additional island north of Hokkaido, which was not part of the Kuril Islands yet which Japan had colonized since 1905 and where roughly 400,000 Japanese lived by 1945. The Soviets sent most of these people to POW camps in Siberia, where conditions were so harsh that at least 10 percent of the prison camp population died, most during the first winter. The final members of this group did not return to Japan until 1956. For more information, see www.kabaren.org (in Japanese).

A Social Revolution [Advertisement]