The dispute between Russia and Japan over the southern Kuril Islands represents one of the longest standing territorial disputes in East Asia. The dispute concerns possession of the four southernmost islands in the chain, Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai.1 This dispute has recently returned to the headlines in the aftermath of a visit to one of the islands by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a move that drew condemnation from leading Japanese officials.
Russia and Japan have traded possession of the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island since they first established diplomatic relations in 1855. In that year, the Treaty of Shimoda assigned possession of the northern Kuril Islands to Russia, while Japan received the four southernmost islands. Sakhalin itself was administered as a joint condominium until the 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg assigned the entire island to Russian possession in exchange for Japan receiving the entire Kuril Islands chain up to the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Russo-Japanese border shifted again after Russia’s defeat in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war. The Treaty of Portsmouth that concluded the war gave the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan.
These borders remained stable until the end of World War II. The Soviet Union occupied the entire Kuril Islands chain and southern Sakhalin Island in late August 1945. Soviet possession of these territories was decided during the Yalta summit in 1945, at which time Joseph Stalin promised to attack Japanese forces three months after the conclusion of the war with Germany. The entire population of the four southern Kuril Islands was expelled in 1947 and resettled in northern Japan. [...]