Island Warfare: World War II Isn't Quite over Yet

By Wohns, Anthony | Harvard International Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Island Warfare: World War II Isn't Quite over Yet


Wohns, Anthony, Harvard International Review


It may come as a surprise to hear that, officially, World War II has not yet ended between Japan and the Soviet Union's 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.

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The language in the San Francisco 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 Russia's economy booming due to oil revenues, there is little prospect of any of the islands being returned. A 2012 visit to die islands by then-President Dmitry Medvedev demonstrates the Russian government's desire to stimulate Russian nationalism by asserting that the Kuril Islands will remain in Russian hands. …

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