Russia & Japan could finally sign WWII peace deal as Tokyo says it is ready to continue negotiations over disputed Kuril Islands

Seventy-five years after the fighting stopped, Russia and Japan could at last officially end WWII after Tokyo expressed hope that talks might continue despite Moscow’s refusal to hand over a disputed Pacific Ocean archipelago.

At a briefing with journalists on Monday, Katsunobo Kato, the chief secretary of the country’s cabinet, suggested that the two countries could finally bury the hatchet in the decades-old territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. “I think that the government will continue to be determined to negotiate in line with our main objective of resolving the issue and concluding a peace treaty,” he said.

The issue of sovereignty over four islands, located between Japan’s northernmost province of Hokkaido and the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula, has hampered the signing of a document that would formally end the hostilities of the Second World War. Moscow maintains that the territory was promised to the Soviet Union in exchange for its role in defeating Imperial Japan. Allied forces even provided ships and hardware to facilitate the invasion, and they have been administered as part of Russia since then.

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Japan has continued to push its claim to the archipelago, arguing that the four southernmost islands were not actually included in the terms of the deal negotiated between the Allied powers. Last year, Russia amended its constitution to include a provision against handing over territory to foreign nations. In September, ex-President Dmitry Medvedev said that the new measures would prohibit a change of status for the Kurils. Kato said that negotiations could continue despite these reforms, but it is not clear whether Tokyo’s diplomats would countenance any deal that did not include the return of the islands.

However, in January, Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s new prime minister, hinted that his country could draw a line under the dispute as part of efforts to normalize relations with its neighbor. He said that the row “should not be passed on to future generations.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also emphasized his hope that talks with “our Japanese friends” would lead to a lasting settlement.

In December, Sapporo-based newspaper Hokkaido Shimbun reported with surprise that residents of the disputed archipelago were considered Japanese by the US government, which in recent years has begun to insist the islands rightfully belong to Tokyo. Despite the local population including many ethnic Russians, as well as people of Ukrainian, Belarusian and Tartar descent and an indigenous Ainu population, for immigration purposes, the American State Department insists they are Japanese citizens.

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The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hit out at Washington’s decision in a statement at the time, asking “do you need more proof that the US is a revisionist power?” A spokesperson added that “In 1945, the Kuril Islands were transferred to the Soviet Union. But today the State Department is seeking to reopen the settlement of the Second World War and encouraging territorial revanchism.”

However, despite maintaining its claim over the archipelago, Moscow has backed some compromise measures allowing Japanese citizens, including those descended from islanders, to visit the Kurils visa-free. Tokyo’s vessels are also allowed to catch fish in Russian waters around the archipelago. In the past, the islands have been a flash point for hostilities and, in 2006, a Japanese fisherman was shot dead in the conflict’s first fatality for 50 years.

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