Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is willing to visit Tokyo this year to negotiate a much delayed peace treaty with Japan on the basis of the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of Oct. 19, 1956, which promises the return to Japan of the Habomai islets and Shikotan (islands at the southern end of the Kuril archipelago that were occupied by Soviet forces in 1945). But Tokyo says Putin is not welcome unless he promises also to return the two much bigger islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri nearby.
Why should Tokyo today want seriously to amend an agreement it signed and ratified almost 50 years ago? The story begins with Japan's 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with the Allied Powers. Article 2(c) of the treaty said unequivocally that Japan would renounce all rights, title and claim to the Kuril islands chain (Chishima Retto) and southern Sakhalin (Karafuto) -- territories to the north of Japan that Japan had controlled up till 1945. But Japan's Foreign Ministry insists that Japan never recognized Etorofu and Kunashiri to be included in those renounced Kuril islands.
This Foreign Ministry claim simply is not true. Japanese materials at the time -- Foreign Ministry maps, statements by former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida at San Francisco and in his later memoirs, and newspaper reports all make it clear that Etorofu and Kunashiri were most definitely included.
The chief U.S. negotiator for the San Francisco treaty, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, agreed. Asked at San Francisco to define the territory of the Kurils, he said only that the Habomais might be excluded (at the time there were suggestions that Shikotan might be part of the Kurils).
[. . . In 1956, Foreign Minister Mamoru] Shigemitsu had begun with a strident demand for all four territories -- the Habomais, Shikotan, Etorofu and Kunashiri (what Japan was beginning to call its "Northern Territories." ) But in the face of blunt Soviet rejections and explanations, he suddenly about faced and on Aug. 12 declared that he would sign a peace treaty on Soviet conditions, i.e., he would accept the Habomais and Shikotan, and drop the demand for Etorofu and Kunashiri.
Problem over? Not quite.
Shigemitsu was immediately summoned to London for talks on the 1956 Suez Canal crisis and on Aug. 19 met Dulles again. According to Matsumoto, an ashen-faced Shigemitsu returned from the meeting saying, "Dulles has said something completely terrible (mattaku hidoi). He said if Japan lets the Soviet Union keep Etorofu and Kunashiri the U.S. will make Okinawa its own territory."
Dulles' threat worked. Shigemitsu returned to Tokyo and the talks could only be revived by Hatoyama himself visiting Moscow a month later. Once again there was impasse over territory claims, but both sides agreed on a Joint Declaration to restore diplomatic relations and to hold further talks on a peace treaty, with the promise of the Habomais and Shikotan to be returned if and when the treaty was signed. Despite strong Japanese pressures, there was no mention of continued talks about territory.