Russian views of Japanese history

As Russia and Japan strive in 2016 for a breakthrough in a relationship long seen as falling behind its true potential, historical consciousness on the Russian side is an overlooked factor. Japanese historical memory toward Russia has been widely examined. Balance of power in East Asia or economic objectives of the two countries have been the subject of frequent attention. Neglect of Russian thinking about Japan’s past and the history of their bilateral relationship make it difficult to interpret Russian officials’ references to history in recent remarks.1 In this article, I analyze the historical and psychological grounds of the Russian mindset towards Japan, which have remained practically intact since the Cold War, and present the overall process of resolving divisions between Russia and Japan in the context of how Russians perceive Japan.

Russian images of Japan have dwelt on symbols of the past, not details about ongoing developments. Actual interactions between Russians and Japanese have been rather limited. Over the three centuries since Russia became a Pacific country, Japan refused overtures to trade or sustain contact for half of that time. Animosity and distrust prevailed for the quarter century after communism came to Russia while Japan veered toward militarism, and the Cold War exacerbated the divide at a time no peace treaty was reached despite normalization of relations in 1956. Even in the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, their relationship was characterized as “distant neighbors,” and mutual trust was absent. Russian images of Japan remained rooted in narratives about past events than contemporary experiences. The talks about resolving a territorial dispute and concluding a peace treaty have become embroiled in the question of how to interpret the actions of the Soviet Union in its month-long war against Japan in August-September 1945: was it stealing Japanese property in violation of a neutrality treaty and capitalizing on Japan’s surrender or fulfilling its promise to contribute to the end of the war and rightfully receiving the territory that belonged to the Soviet Union?

History classes taught in Russian schools portray Japan as either a hostile adversary of Russia in the prewar period or a satellite of the United States—Russia’s rival and geopolitical enemy—after WWII. Due to ideological reasons, postwar Japan was relegated to the periphery of the Soviet/Russian view of the world. A characteristic feature of Russian foreign policy thinking was and still is Eurocentrism, under which all its major deeds are centered in the West; the East is nothing more than just an object of rivalry of the two systems. Japan was largely seen through the mid-1980s as a country rife with class conflict and on the verge of turning against the hegemonic control of the United States. There was little effort to grasp the real dynamics of its domestic system and international aspirations. In these circumstances, it was easy to view Japan through the prism of selected historical memories. After the end of the Cold War, Russians turned inward, judging countries primarily for their impact on the revival of Russia as a great power. Interest in Japan was also limited by the impression that it could no longer claim to be a “miracle” or even a model, or supportive of Russia’s revival. In 1992, Japan was deemed unhelpful and unduly pressuring Russia; in 2002, it was dismissed for having abandoned negotiations after a lot of fanfare; and in 2009-11, expectations fell to their nadir. Why rethink old stereotypes given these repeated disappointments?

Perceptions of Pre-1940s Japan in Russia/the USSR

Asian history is taught not as a separate subject but as part of global history where Japan’s place is minor compared to those of Western countries. In Soviet/Russian history education, there prevails an outlook on Japanese civilization, undoubtedly rich and unique, as the product of a “stalemate” historical path, where capitalist and, later, revolutionary forces were suppressed. It is supposed that this path would have led Japan to the miserable destiny of a Western colony, but in a historical caprice, she managed to “wake up” and conduct radical Westernization reforms in the second half of the nineteenth century that enabled her to enter the superior club of the great powers. Even then, however, forces at home and abroad kept stultifying Japan’s path, interfering with the development path deemed normal in Soviet historiography.

Perceptions of Japan in Russia/the USSR were overwhelmingly grim and hostile. Since the late 19th century, when Japan started its expansion in Manchuria and the Russian Far East, several generations of the inhabitants of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union formed a sense of “yellow peril” through their historical memory. Suspicion towards Japan intensified during the periods of the Russo-Japanese war, the Japanese military intervention in the Soviet Far East, and the confrontation on the Manchurian border and in Mongolia in the 1930s. Interludes of hopeful exchanges were too brief to matter for long.

One should take special notice of the emotional stress associated with Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, which inflicted on the Russian people deep psychological trauma. In the periods prior to and during the Russo-Japanese war, largely due to official propaganda in the public sphere, there formed an image of the Japanese as insidious, malicious, and vindictive “aliens”–representatives of an entirely different and hostile culture. Racial motives played a certain role. In the eyes of the Russian elite war with Japan was a battle between the white and yellow races; the defeat of Russia, which represented the white, “superior race,” inflicted strong damage on its national pride. One should recall that Russia justified its eastward expansion by her civilizing mission towards the Asian peoples. The defeat in the war, besides resentment and humiliation, also meant a blow to its ideology of imperial messianism, based on the civilizational superiority of Russia over “barbarian” Asia. It was not accidental that Stalin appealed to then hurt pride of the Russian people when he laid moral grounds for the USSR war against Japan in his speech on September 2, 1945: “The defeat of Russian troops during the Russo-Japanese war left bitter memories in the minds of people. It left a black spot on our country. Our people nourished hopes for the day when Japan would be defeated and the stain would be removed.”2 This framed the thinking about the past that would be engrained in the postwar era.

Another important component of historical memory is the military intervention of Japan in Russia in 1918-1922. In the minds of the prewar generation of Soviet citizens, particularly in Siberia and the Far East, the Japanese military intervention remained a bleeding wound. Especially dark memories were left by the actions of the Japanese military against the local population during the struggle with the partisan movement. Japanese intervention left its trace in the memory of the Soviet people as a great tragedy, a chain of suffering, humiliation, and mass deaths of innocents. In contrast to the Russo-Japanese war, it was the first war on Russian territory in the history of bilateral ties with the Japanese, and, in that sense, it left a sense of being a holy war with foreign invaders.

Subliminal distrust and even fear towards Japan did not always having a rational basis, and persistently troubled the minds of Soviet leaders in the prewar era. Japan appeared as mostly an aggressive power, whose main motive was to attack the USSR and acquire its Far Eastern possessions. This vision was supported by Tokyo’s expansionist strategy. In the early 1930s, Japan occupied Manchuria, expanding its military pursuits to the entire lengths of the Manchu-Soviet and the Manchu-Mongolian borders. Tensions on the borders resulted in real fighting, and in 1935, because of provocations, Moscow resorted to the sale of the Chinese Eastern railway to Manchukuo, the puppet state of Japan. Growing confrontations along the borders led to armed conflicts near Lake Khasan in 1938 and near river Khalkhin-Gol in 1939. In 1936, Japan joined the Anti-Comintern Pact and in 1940, it finally opted for military alliance with Germany and Italy aimed against the USSR. The legacy of the 1930s was recalled in the postwar era.

Thus, the events during the first half of the 20th century remained in the memory of the Soviet people as evidence of the aggressive course of Japan toward Russia/USSR, and over time, this impression grew. Among Soviet citizens, this provided grounds for feelings of estrangement and distrust toward Japan, which seemed an alien and hostile country. That is why the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan in 1945, formally justified in its official statement as needed to bring a speedy end to the war, has been widely seen in the USSR as an act of historical justice.

Perceptions of Soviet-Japan Relations in 1945

The decision to declare war on Japan was officially based on the February 1945 Yalta agreements and the June 1945 UN Charter requirements to implement all possible steps against the enemy states. However, unlike Germany, Japan neither attacked the Soviet Union, nor caused great suffering to the Soviet people or extensive damage to the Soviet economy. After the Neutrality Pact had been signed, Stalin was anxious not to provoke Japan to prevent it from joining Germany’s side in the war. Contrary to wartime propaganda against Germany, Moscow did not arouse among its people any hatred or even negative emotions toward Japan: so there was no strong, new anti-Japanese component in Russian public sentiment. The Soviet-Japanese war lasted for only about three weeks compared to almost four years with Germany, and the number of dead Soviet soldiers numbered in the thousands, not millions, on the eastern front.

Against this background, Stalin delivered a speech on the occasion of the victory over Japan on September 2, 1945, laying ethical grounds for Russia’s entry into the war, recounting the history of bilateral relations with Japan not necessarily related to WWII, but essential for fomenting anti-Japanese feelings. The first such event was the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, which instilled among Russians a desire for revenge and “historical justice.” Moreover, as was pointed out by Stalin, Japan established her rule on the Kuril Islands and South Sakhalin and planned to realize the secession of the Russian Far East; during the intervention of 1918-22, Japan occupied the Far East and “for four years plagued our people, robbing the Soviet Far East.”3 The Soviet Union was forced to reckon with the threat of aggression during the Great Patriotic War and keep substantial military forces in the Far East, which could have been deployed on the Western front. During the war, Japan captured Soviet ships, illegally detained Soviet citizens, and committed other acts of provocation. It was revealed later that, as an ally of Nazi Germany, Japan intended to participate in the dismemberment of the USSR and on January 18, 1942, concluded a deal with Berlin and Rome over dismantling the Soviet territory into “German” and “Japanese” zones of occupation with the dividing line along the meridian of Omsk.4 

Broad publicity was given to the plan of the Japanese military to start a war against the USSR, developed as “Guidelines to the Kwantong Army by the General Staff of the Imperial Army” in accordance with the decision of the imperial council dated July 2, 1941, less than three months after signing the Neutrality Pact with the USSR. Against this backdrop, the Soviet public viewed the defeat of the Japanese militarists in Manchuria, Korea, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands as liberation, similar to that carried out by the Red Army in Europe. The territorial acquisitions of the USSR in the war with Japan—obtaining the Kuril Islands and the return of South Sakhalin—were seen in the same vein, an act of restoration of historical justice.

Another important factor in bilateral relations with Japan was the status of the USSR and post-Soviet Russia as the demiurge of the postwar global order. As this status was acquired due to its victory in WWII, the “moral authority” related to this status became increasingly significant for the international posturing of the USSR, especially after it had become clear that Moscow was losing in the economic competition against the West. Equally important were the domestic aspects of this self-identification, especially after the collapse of the USSR. After failing to accommodate itself as part of the Western global paradigm, Russia started to search for a new national idea. Given the lack of other, more recent, achievements, the only thing that could consolidate the nation became the great victory in the holy war, achieved at a cost of the lives of 27 million Soviet citizens, as well as events of the more distant historical past. After the end of the Cold War, Japan, in accordance with its status as the “defeated enemy,” was due to play an indispensable role in reestablishing Russia’s glamour, however illusionary, and serve the aim of alleviating the phantom pains of the superpower complex.

The Cold War Era

During the Cold War, Moscow, in global geopolitical rivalry with the West, was inclined to refrain from excessive propaganda attacks on Tokyo for its improper war behavior. Japan was defeated, disarmed, and humiliated, and it offered the Soviet people a sense of moral satisfaction, allowing them to put aside former grudges accumulated over almost a century of confrontation. Japan’s “debts” to Russia for the defeat in the battle of Tsushima, the military intervention, the provocations on the China-Eastern railroad, and the fighting at Khalkhin-Gol River were, thus, redeemed by her surrender and Russia’s acquisition of the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin. Such restraint suggests that there was no anger inthe consciousness of the postwar generation of Soviet people, similar to that left in the Chinese and the Koreans by the Japanese invasion. Yet, a reservoir of vindication and suspicion was there to be tapped if so desired.

The tolerant position of Moscow toward Japan was affected by an ideological factor: according to the Marxist theory, the rulers, not the people, should be blamed for any wrongdoing. Therefore, it is the military clique, not the people of Japan, who are responsible. However, after the collapse of the communist regime, the idea of separating the nation and its rulers lost appeal. Special notice should be given to the perception of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: in the eyes of Soviet citizens, the Japanese people more than generously paid for the adventurous policy of their military clique. These tragedies spawned among the Soviet people a feeling of compassion toward the Japanese people as the first victims of atomic weapons and created the expectation that Japan would be at the forefront of the international movement against nuclear war.

Besides, the Soviet people nourished a feeling of moral satisfaction from the fact that Japan found herself occupied after the war, left without the right to write her own constitution or conduct an independent foreign policy. It was seen as an “American semi-colony.” Postwar pacifism was perceived in the Soviet Union as “divine punishment.”

The “semi-colony” Japan was implicitly treated as an integral part of Asia, awakening from centuries of hibernation, and as a country facing the challenge of a national liberation movement. In the 1950-60s, Japanese representatives were invited to various anti-imperialist forums, and Japanese students were accepted at the expense of the Soviet public budget in Patrice Lumumba Friendship University, established in 1960 in the spirit of “friendship between nations” to educate cadres of highly skilled students from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The victimized image of Japan became a case study in the ideological struggle with the West.

After signing the security treaty with the United States, Japan became involved in the grind of the strategic confrontation of Cold War. For the USSR, the US military presence in Japan meant that she became a potential missile launch pad for Soviet targets. Yet, the American bases on Japanese soil were presented in the USSR not as a conscious choice of a democratically elected government of Japan, but an imposition of the overseas partner and a source of untold sufferings of the Japanese people. This again confirmed the idea of the ‘semi-colonial’ status of Japan, hindering Moscow’s treatment of Tokyo as a full-fledged diplomatic partner.

In the eyes of Soviet policy-makers, Japan was more an object of geopolitical rivalry to be liberated from the US sphere of influence than a subject of a coherent diplomatic posture. This context was pivotal from the beginning of “peaceful coexistence.” In 1955-56, Nikita Khrushchev expressed his willingness to compromise in negotiations with Japan on the restoration of diplomatic relations. Moscow agreed to transfer two minor South Kuril Islands following the signing of a peace treaty, seeking to secure Japan’s neutral status and, thereby, ensure the safety of its Far Eastern frontiers.5  When Tokyo signed the revised security treaty with Washington in January 1960, Moscow immediately refused to comply with the terms of the 1956 declaration. Its motives were unambiguously expressed in the “Gromyko Note”: Tokyo was accused of reluctance to withdraw foreign military bases from its territory.

Generally speaking, Cold War mentality shaped an alarmist view of Japan as a “militarist” and even a “hostile” country belonging to the opposing political camp. Special attention was always paid to the “revisionist” ruling circles, which endeavored to change the pacifist constitution for a full-fledged military one. Japan, in Soviet mass media reports, walked the “path of militarization” and was establishing a powerful army in defiance of its own Constitution. Media also published numerous reprints of Asian press reports, which harshly criticized the militaristic course of the Japanese ruling circles, calling Japan a US lackey and exposing “Japanese neo-colonialism” as part of the ideological struggle with the West. Such repeated labels did not contribute to adequately understanding postwar Japanese diplomacy and security policy. Only a few people knew that the Japanese army did not expand in size, that defense expenditures did not exceed 1% of their GNP, and that it almost never exported arms to other countries.

The lack of objective information facilitated exaggerated notions of Japan’s military threat and led to re-evaluation of its anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. Losing hope to neutralize Japan, Moscow prioritized economic relations with Japan in the 1960-70s, seeing it as a source of investment and high-tech products necessary for the development of natural resources in Siberia and the Far East, as well as a promising market for Soviet exports. Political ties remained frozen as Moscow did not want to exacerbate the Southern Kurils problem and reopen dialogue on the basis of the 1956 Declaration. Russia insisted that “there is no territorial problem with Japan,” while Tokyo demanded intransigently the “simultaneous return of the four islands,” placing the territorial issue at the center of their political agenda in its relations with Moscow. Political contacts at high level were almost at a standstill.

Soviet propaganda treated Japan differently from any other Western country, e.g., the United States or Great Britain, which were seen as imperialist states that pursued a permanently anti-Soviet policy throughout the 20th century. Soviet media implicitly underlined that postwar Japan is a qualitatively different from its prewar self, having paid in full for its old sins. The concept of “Japanese militarism” was accompanied by an image of the peace-loving Japanese people, enhanced by an extensive coverage of the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements in Japan.

Soviet propagandists exercised restraint at low points in the history of bilateral relations, even regarding the Japanese poacher fishing in Soviet territorial waters, i.e. issues which could easily foment anti-Japanese sentiment. Although the war damage during the intervention in the Far East and the Great Patriotic War was calculated to a penny, it was stressed that the USSR would abandon any reparation claims under Article 6 of the 1956 Declaration, showing “generosity unprecedented for the relations between the winner and the loser.”6 On issues of bilateral relations involving the period of WWII, media scrutiny was not welcome because the USSR considered them to be completely resolved by the Joint Declaration of 1956 and did not want to create a pretext for a new debate.

A taboo was imposed even on the study of the historical background of the Soviet-Japanese territorial problem. One could speak only about the “unfounded territorial claims” of the Japanese side. High school textbooks on the history of Japan omitted any notice of Article 9 of the 1956 Joint Declaration, which required transferring two islands to Japan after signing the Peace Treaty. The destructive role of the United States in obstructing Soviet-Japanese relations was particularly highlighted.

During the geopolitical confrontation with Beijing in the 1960-80s, excessive propaganda attacks on Japan for the actions of its army in China were avoided. Questions of the aggressive policy of militarist Japan, including the “Nanjing massacre,” were rarely raised. A rare exception was the Russian translation of Morimura Seiichi, The Devil’s Gluttony,7 devoted to the activities of Japanese Regiment 731, who conducted inhuman experiments on prisoners in Manchuria to develop bacteriological weapons.

By the 1980s, Japan’s “economic miracle” caused a surge of interest in Japanese history, culture, and art, contributing to far more favorable treatment of Japan in public consciousness than the United States, and further, many European countries with much greater cultural similarity to Russia. Yet, rapid economic growth in Japan was perceived mostly as a temporary phenomenon caused by some Japan-specific factors, including a skilled and cheap labor force, advanced American technology, and low prices for commodity goods and energy resources. A stereotype was formed of the “hard-working Japanese people” skillfully applying and perfecting foreign technologies. Such skepticism can be explained by Russia’s persistent West-centrism, according to which only Europe, and later the United States, was regarded as a source of cultural and especially technological progress. The term “Asian” was deeply stereotyped as a synonym of underdevelopment.8

The End of the Cold War

After the end of the Cold War, the Russian political establishment inherited earlier stereotypes of Japan. The overwhelming majority of Russians, even those with basic historical education in the post-Soviet period, adopted the \Cold War postulates regarding Japan and Russo/Soviet-Japanese relations: the Soviet entry in the war against Japan was an act of ultimate historical justice leading to a speedy end of the war; Japan, as a defeated country, should bear its status with humility; the results of WWII, including the territorial acquisitions, are inviolable. In the eyes of most Russians, Japan was still a subordinate country with “semi-colonial status” and, at best, did have practice its own foreign policy, or, at worst, served as a satellite of the United States—hence, a geopolitical adversary of Russia. Russia’s unfriendly attitude toward Japan aggravated since the mid-2000s, and climaxed in 2009-2010, when Japan accused Russia of the “illegal occupation” of the “Northern Territories” and sharply criticized the visit of President Medvedev and other high-ranked Russian officials. Russia defended its position that Japan is unwilling to acknowledge the results of WWII.  

Russian public opinion on Japan was increasingly wary before Prime Minister Abe’s 2013 overtures to President Putin. In the minds of the Russians, Japan was immediately associated with extreme distaste with the unlawful claims to the Southern Kuril Islands. Against this background, even people insistent about the necessity to settle the territorial spat with Japan are, at best, treated by many as “not patriotic,” and at worst, as  “traitors,” “selling national territory.” Over the past three years, despite Abe’s continued pursuit of Putin, these attitudes have been remarkably resistant to change, in part because no positive narrative of the future Russo-Japanese partnership or Japan’s place in Asia has been presented to Russians.

Three Distinct Attitudes toward Japan in Russia

In contemporary Russian establishment and academic circles, one can map out three main groups by their attitude to the role of Japan in Russia’s foreign policy: conservatives, realists, and mercantilists. The conservative view has the strongest appeal to Russia’s political class, including deputies of all levels, the military, diplomats, journalists, experts, and some university professors. This view relies on broad public sentiment, in which the nationalist component after the Crimean events has significantly increased. Conservatives rest their argument on Russia’s status as a guarantor state of the Yalta-Potsdam system and postulate the inviolability of the results of WWII. Japan should adhere to their status of defeat, accepting it in repentance and humility. The Abe Cabinet’s national security policy aimed at revision of the Constitution and an active military build-up is viewed with alarm as “revenge-seeking.”

Conservatives treat Japan’s territorial claims with extreme negative emotions. Paradoxically, however, they are generally positive about the Japan-US military alliance, believing it to be the only effective tool that limits Japan’s military ambitions and need to acquire nuclear weapons, becoming a source of threat for Russia. The most radical proponents of this view insist that there even remains the possibility of a military attack by Japan in order to force a solution to the territorial problem. For example, Krupyanko and Areshidze note that “Russian military planning should proceed from the worst of possible scenarios,” especially in view of the fact that “the proximity of the Islands to the Japanese sea lanes makes the task of their defense very, very difficult.”9

Conservatives’ insistence on the inviolability of the outcome of World War II and Japan’s status as the “defeated enemy” means a rigid position of “no territorial problem” in Moscow’s dialogue with Tokyo. Any compromise, even in the spirit of the 1956 Declaration, would implicitly mean a revision of the results of WWII and pose a new challenge to the global system of postwar frontiers. This point of view has become commonplace in the Russian political establishment in recent years, generating intransigence in Moscow’s dialogue with Tokyo.

Realists reject the dogmatic understanding of the WWII outcome and other historical issues inherent to conservatives, and instead, realistically assess the post-bipolar world realities, concluding that for today’s Russia, it is better to treat Japan not as a political adversary or a defeated enemy, but as a potential ally against China’s rapid military build-up, which will pose a much greater challenge to Russia. They see the present situation in bilateral relations as abnormal. A representative document is the review of the Russian Council of International Relations devoted to the present state of Russo-Japanese relations, written by a group of Russian experts on Japan headed by Ambassador Alexander Panov. It stresses that relations “suffer from the lack of momentum in their development” and laments that “neither Moscow nor Tokyo has its own strategic vision of the prospects for achieving a qualitatively new level of interaction and cooperation in line with new realities both in Asia-Pacific region and in the world.”10

Realists show understanding of Japan’s natural urge to protect its national interests. They believe that Japan and Russia can find a compromise on the territorial issue based on the 1956 Declaration, the specifics of which should be based on understanding mutual threats. They claim that Japan holds an exceedingly pro-American stance, that she should choose a more independent position that would better advance her national interests, and that Japan is strong enough to rid of close monitoring by Uncle Sam. The Panov-led review appeals to the need for Japan to establish “multiple relations” with Russia and the facilitation of its promotion in the Asia-Pacific region.”11

Realists attach particular importance to differences in the national interests of Japan and the United States, pointing to the “China threat” and Japan’s need to build good relations with Russia in order to neutralize this threat. To support this idea, they interpret contacts between the United States and China in conspiratorial terms, as an attempt to “divide the globe behind Japan’s back.” This type of thinking can be found among political analysts and diplomats with a more constrained outlook on the present situation than the conservatives. It should be noted that after the Ukrainian crisis, with a growing anti-American component in Russian foreign policy, many Russian decision-makers tend to think that Japan supports the anti-Russian sanctions against her will, only out of solidarity with the West and under pressure from Washington. The opinion that Japan may contribute to Moscow’s overcoming its isolation, frequently heard in various informal settings, reflects the foreign policy thinking of the realist wing. Their historical thinking is not centered on resentment but how balances of power have come and gone, although they may cite past examples of Japanese resentment toward the United States.

The mercantilist faction insists on decisively distancing Russia from all complicating and conflict-generating issues of the past and relying on the mutuality of interests, primarily in the economic sphere. They accentuate the commonality of economic interests between Russia and Japan, based on the ability of Russia to supply Japan with energy, food, and transit opportunities in Europe in exchange for Japanese investment and technology. This is the most radical “pro-Japanese” view, underscoring the inadmissibility of unilateral reliance on China, which carries for Russia the risk of becoming her “northern province.” Mercantilists believe that Russia and Japan should build their relations from scratch, not recalling their past grudges. Russia desperately needs Japanese investment and technologies, especially in Siberia and the Far East; in exchange, Russia should resolve the territorial dispute with Japan, or at least find the most conflict-free formula of freezing it. As underlined by Trenin and Weber, “the existence of a ‘second Germany’ on the Pacific, in their opinion, will significantly strengthen the position of Russia on the world stage.”12

This thinking is widespread in the Russian expert community, economic bureaucracy, business community, and the liberal political wing, although they have not gained traction in today’s Russian society and are barely reflected in diplomatic policymaking. However, along with the growing crisis in the Russian economy and the emergence of serious problems in relations with China, one can expect strengthening of the mercantilists’ position in the decision-making sphere. For that to happen, there would need to be a downgrading of historical invocations.

Which of the above-mentioned mindsets is the most dominant in Russian foreign policy thinking towards Japan? One cannot give a definite answer. Russian leaders do not seem to have any solid image of Japan and her foreign policy; nor do they possess any coherent strategy for developing relations with this country. Mutually exclusive points of view have coexisted. In some cases, at the forefront are considerations of national prestige. Historical issues (and especially the territorial problem) are used for consolidating domestic support. 

Russia refrains from any moves that could potentially deteriorate political relations with Japan. Moscow takes a very cautious approach to Tokyo’s present military policy and, unlike China, abstains from overly criticizing Japan—for example, for the 2015 National Security Act, which legalized Japan’s right to collective self-defense, and Japan’s attempts to change the Constitution. Russia is also quiet about Tokyo’s relations with its neighbors, including the Yasukuni Shrine visits, history textbooks, “comfort women,” and in particular, territorial spats, where Moscow deliberately accentuates its neutrality. Russia fears spoiling the already strained relations with Tokyo, as it tries to ensure their relations do not suffer additional challenges, and keep the door open for normalization of political relations with Tokyo.


Mainstream thinking in Russia holds that normal relations with Japan can be built without any peace treaty. There are convincing precedents: Japan does not have any such treaty with China or South Korea, nor does postwar Germany with her former enemies. For Russia, it would be preferable to sign a “Treaty on Good-Neighborliness” with Japan, similar to the one between Japan and China signed in August 1978—an idea often put forward by Russia since the 1970s. This would allow Russians to retain their historical judgments while bringing an end to Japanese demands for different historical interpretations amid territorial changes. 

Russia, however, could also comply with Japan’s initiative to sign a peace treaty as a “lesser evil” concession to Japan. This way, Russia would secure Japan’s consent to the results of WWII based on the San Francisco Treaty, and in return, Moscow would not insist on Japan’s status as the defeated enemy. The peace treaty with Japan could be treated as a deal between equal partners aimed at the future and serving pragmatic diplomatic ends, not a tool for vindicating Russia’s claims about the complex history of Russo-Japanese relations.

In any agreement, all issues of WWII, including reparations and POWs, would be considered completely settled. The peace treaty is, in fact, no more than a euphemistic wording for a deal on the “territorial problem”—the main contested item to be settled. However, contrary to Japan, Russia is uneasy about using the phrase “territorial problem,” preferring to speak of “border demarcation” that should be resolved within the framework of the peace treaty. It is highly unlikely that Russia will go beyond the conditions of the Declaration of 1956. Given Japan’s insistence on settling the border issue, Russia would agree to its pursuit of a peace treaty in return for normalization of relations, but not to its conditions for settling the border issue, which may seriously undermine its own historical narrative.

1. Sergey Lavrov stated on September 21, 2015, when meeting Kishida Fumio:  “In particular, we recalled that progress on this issue is only possible after we receive clarification regarding the recognition by Japan of postwar historical realities, including the UN Charter in its entirety. In fact, the historical aspect of this problem that we inherited from World War II is the most serious impediment to its resolution. The dialogue should continue, because without clarifying the historical reality that we have today as a result of World War II, we will be unable to move forward.”

2. I. Stalin “Obrashchenie k narodu,” Pravda, September 3, 1945. 

3. Ibid.

4. Arkady Koshkin, “Kak Iaponiia pomogala SSSR odolet” Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 8, 2015,

5. Alexei Zagorsky, “Reconciliation in the Fifties. The Logic of Soviet Decision-Making.” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Japan and Russia: The Tortuous Path to Normalization, 1949-1999 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 47-72.

6. Dmirty Petrov, Iaponiia v mirovoi politike (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia, 1973), 21.

7. Morimura Seichi, Kukhnia d’iavola  (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983).

8. Semyon Verbitsky, Formirovanie predstavlenii o Iaponii v Rossii i SSSR (Moscow: Nauka, 1991), 129-49.

9. Mikhail Krupyanko and Liana Areshize,  “Iaponskii natsionalizm i ego vliianie na bezopasnost’ Rossii na Dal’nem Vostoke,” Vostochnaia analitika, 156.

10. Russian International Affairs Council, Current state of Russia’s relations with Japan and prospects for their development (Moscow: Spetskniga, 2012),5.

11. Ibid., 24.

12. D. Trenin and Y. Veber, “Tikhookeanskoe budushchee Rossii: uregulirovanie spora vokrug Iuzhnykh Kuril,”