The dark cloud hanging over the Russian media right now has for the first time in many years shifted away from the Donbass/Ukraine all the way to the other side of the nation as Russian and Japanese diplomats work to finally end WWII. Yes, although it is very hard to believe, a formal end to the war between these two great nations has never been made. But the question is “why?”. Why after 70 some years is it now “time to negotiate”? And is this really Japan acting in its own self interest or is this formally occupied nation wheeling and dealing for Washington’s interests?
The key factor in the negotiations as portrayed by the media are the southern Kuril Islands, which the Japanese acquired from an agreement with the Russian Empire in 1855. The Soviet Union however took the islands back near the end of WWII. The fate of the islands today and the lack of any sort of formal end to the conflict between Japan and the Soviet Union is very much linked to the last months of the largest war in human history.
Although it is often unmentioned in the West, the Soviet Union as part of its allied obligations pulled its forces east after the German capitulation and was able to utterly crush all Japanese forces in Manchuria within 11 days. The Red Army also managed to liberate the entire southern half of the massive Sakhalin Island in roughly two weeks.
After its capitulation and subsequent US occupation Japan was no longer really any sort of actor on the international stage. The power in Tokyo immediately became American at the moment of their surrender. This means that the actual negotiations would in reality be between the occupying US standing behind a weakening provisional government and the Soviet Union.
As part of some sort of official “surrender” the losing side usually has to sacrifice territory wealth, etc. in order to close the deal. Countries that lose wars, lose territory; Turkey, Austro-Hungary and Germany after WWI and Russia after it dropped out of said war are good examples.
So how could the US, who lost a lot of men and machine to take Japan, who had the atomic advantage, somehow sign a deal with the Communists that would give away a good chunk of the spoils of war? The US couldn’t do this and so “Japan” didn’t make any formal end to the war with Russia. Thus, nothing could be given to the Soviets for their victory.
Japan now is in exactly the same status as a non-actor as it was the day it surrendered to the United States. The nation is still under the bureaucratic yoke of the General MacArthur written/supervised constitution and is occupied by the United States with 50,000+ American soldiers on the small nation.
However, slowly over time, Japan has been trying to restore its sovereignty especially militarily. They have returned their marine corps for the first time since WWII (albeit in small numbers). They have also used amphibious vehicles on foreign soil for the first time since their big loss in the big war. This is important to note because like aircraft carriers, amphibious landing craft are for use on offense only. Japan is bound by its constitution to have only a small “Defense Force”. Strategically speaking you don’t need to make an amphibious assault on your own territory nor they detour enemy forces from attacking. There have also been numerous protests against US military bases being in Japan. So although Japan is exactly the same now as it was in 1946 on paper (roughly) the reality of the sovereignty of the nation is a much more grey picture. Recently Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said “Japan must stop trying to include the US in peace talks with Moscow and must abandon its territorial claims if it’s to make any progress”. If he was speaking literally this implies that Japan is actually a sovereign but weak actor trying to use the United States for an advantage. However, as we have discussed, despite the progress towards sovereignty Japan has made it may just be easier for Russia to negotiate directly with Washington regarding Japan without the Tokyo middlemen because any agreement made with Japan is one made also with the US.
As stated above the key focus of the negotiations for the Japanese side are the southern Kuril Islands which they feel are under “illegal occupation” by Russia. But one thing that is ignored by the media is that Japan has retained most of its pre-WWII territory. But for some reason the Japanese seem really only concerned with the Kuril Islands.
Palau and the Yap Islands were under the control of the Japanese since 1914. These islands were taken from tribal locals, much in the same way that the Russians and Japanese absorbed Sakhalin and the Kurils from tribal peoples. However, Japan for “some reason” does not seemed concerned with bringing Palau and the Yap Islands back home.
It looks like occupied Japan is specifically targeting only the former territory that is controlled by their occupier’s boogeyman. Palau and the Yap Islands would only really matter if they were controlled by Russia. This selective outrage is further evidence to the weakness of Tokyo as a sovereign actor. The objective is anti-Russian not pro-Japanese.
NOTE: The author has nothing against Japan trying to rise up and restore its culture and former glory. Nor is this anything personal against the Japanese themselves. The Japanese should not feel shame for their occupied status but instead the need to have it removed.