Historians identify the crushing victory of Japan over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 as the beginning of those countries' poor relations. After World War I, Japan took Vladivostok and held the key port for four years, initially as a member of the Allied interventionist forces that occupied parts of Russia after the new Bolshevik (see Glossary) government proclaimed neutrality in 1917. At the end of World War II, Stalin broke the neutrality pact that had existed throughout the war in order to occupy vast areas of East Asia formerly held by Japan. His action resulted in the incorporation of the entire Kuril Islands chain and the southern half of Sakhalin Island into the Soviet Union, and it created an issue that blocked the signing of a peace treaty and forging closer relations. In the Gorbachev era, relations thawed somewhat as high officials exchanged visits and the Soviet Union reduced its Far East nuclear forces and troops, but fundamental differences remained unchanged when the Soviet Union dissolved.
Since World War II, twin concerns have dominated Japanese relations with the former Soviet Union: the East-West Cold War and the so-called Northern Territories--the four southernmost Kuril islands--that the Soviet Union occupied under the terms of the Yalta Conference in 1945 and continued to occupy on grounds of national security. The dissolution of the Soviet Union initially raised Japanese expectations of a favorable resolution of the islands dispute and Russian hopes of significant Japanese economic aid and investment in return. But the return of the islands to Japan remained politically inadvisable for Soviet and Russian leaders throughout the first half of the 1990s.
Just before he became de facto president of Russia in 1990, Yeltsin had advanced a bold, five-point plan to deal with the territorial issue. After initially criticizing the plan, the Gorbachev government incorporated several of Yeltsin's recommendations into its foreign policy position. The plan envisioned several steps leading to a full peace treaty, without a firm Russian commitment to return the islands, and in 1992 the Russian Federation continued the discussions that the Gorbachev regime had initiated.
However, Japan refused to increase commercial activity with Russia until the countries resolved the territorial issue (by which Japan meant that Russia would recognize its sovereignty) and signed a peace treaty. Russia offered only to return two islands after a peace treaty was signed. In the meantime, Yeltsin's efforts to improve bilateral relations faced increased domestic criticism from hard-line legislators, regional officials in Russia's Far East, and elements within the military establishment. In 1992 this criticism culminated in Yeltsin's Security Council forcing an embarrassing, last-minute cancellation of a presidential trip to Japan. Russia's January 1993 foreign policy concept approached the problem only obliquely. It made an improved role in Asian geopolitics a top general priority and improved relations with Japan a primary specific goal in that process.
In 1993-96 Russo-Japanese relations showed signs of improvement, although there were also repeated setbacks as both sides proposed and then withdrew conditions. After postponing a second visit, Yeltsin finally made an official visit to Japan in October 1993. The resulting bilateral Tokyo Declaration represented some movement on both sides, but Russia's dumping of nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan and the issue of Japanese fishing rights off the Kuril Islands marred relations in the ensuing years. In 1995 the two sides came close to agreements on both issues--including Japanese aid to build sorely needed nuclear waste processing facilities in Russia's Maritime (Primorskiy) Territory--but the terms of the treatment plant remained mired in controversy, and continued Japanese violations stymied the fishing agreement in 1995 (see Environmental Conditions, ch. 3).
After two years of talks, in January 1996 Russia reached an agreement with Japanese and United States firms to build a liquid nuclear waste treatment ship with financing from Russia, Japan, and the United States. Negotiations over fishing rights remained deadlocked after a fifth round of talks ended in February 1996, and Russian border troops continued to fire on Japanese fishing vessels. The Russians protested a Japanese proposal to extend a 200-mile economic exclusion zone around its coastlines, in line with Japan's imminent ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea prescribing the limits of national coastline authority. Because of the proximity of the two countries, such a zone would include substantial Russian coastal waters. Meanwhile, the Kuril Islands issue remained unresolved in the first half of 1996, although at the Moscow G-7 meeting the two sides agreed to resume talks.