Strains in Japan-Soviet Union relations have deep historical roots, going back to the competition of the Japanese and Russian empires for dominance in Northeast Asia. In 1993, nearly fifty years after the end of World War II, a state of war between Japan and Russia existed technically because the government in Moscow had refused in the intervening years to sign the 1951 peace treaty. The main stumbling block in all Japan's subsequent efforts to establish bilateral relations on what it called "a truly stable basis" was the territorial dispute over the Kurils, which are known as the Northern Territories in Japan.
The poor relations between the Soviet Union and Japan from the 1920s till the late 1940s can probably be said to have originated in Japan's victory over imperial Russia, the predecessor state of the Soviet Union, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Also, during the Russian Civil War (1918-21), Japan (as a member of the Allied interventionist forces) occupied Vladivostok and did not leave until 1922, the year in which the Soviet Union was founded.
In 1925, after several years of negotiations between Japan and the Soviet Union, both countries agreed that the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth (the treaty between the Russian Empire and Imperial Japan which ended the Russo-Japanese War) remained in force, while other agreements and treaties between the two countries should be re-examined. By concluding this agreement, Japan formally recognized the Soviet Union.
After the occupation of Manchuria in 1932, Japan turned its military interests to Soviet territories. Soviet-Japanese relations sharply deteriorated after 1936. This stemmed from the conclusion of the Anti-Comintern pact between Japan and Germany in November 1935, which was designed as a defense against international communism. The Soviet-Union reacted by concluding the Soviet-Mongolian Protocol Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance in March 1936.
The first major Soviet-Japanese border incident, the so-called Battle of Lake Khasan (1938), happened in Primorye, not far from Vladivostok. Conflicts between the Japanese and the Soviets frequently happened on the border of Manchuria, escalating into an undeclared border war which was decided in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol (1939), which took place at the Mongolian-Manchurian border. The Soviet Union won decisively, and deterred Japan from any further aggression during World War II.
In 1941, two years after the border war, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a Neutrality Pact. Later in 1941, Japan would consider breaking the pact when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) at the start of the Great Patriotic War, but they didn't, largely due to the defeat at Battle of Khalkhin Gol, even though Japan and Nazi Germany were part of the Tripartite Pact.
In April 1945, before the defeat of Nazi-Germany the Soviet Union annulled the neutrality pact and after the defeat of Germany in Europe (1945), the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in support of the other Allies of World War II and launched Operation August Storm. The invasion began on August 8, 1945, precisely three months after the German surrender on May 8. Notably, it began between the droppings of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9).
Japan's decision to surrender was made before the scale of the Soviet attack on Manchuria, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands was known, but had the war continued, the Soviets had plans to invade Hokkaidō well before the other Allied invasion of Kyūshū.
Due to the invasion, 56 islands of the Kuril chain, as well as the southern half of Sakhalin (i.e. the Northern Territories), were in 1946 incorporated into the Soviet Union by a Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet. This decree created a South-Sakhalin Province in the Khabarovsk Region of the Soviet Union. This annexation was never recognized by Japan and prevented the conclusion of a Soviet-Japanese World War II peace treaty and the establishment of closer relations between the two states. The Soviet Union refused to return these territories because it feared that such a return would encourage China to push their own territorial claims against the Soviet Union. Also, the Soviet Union has used the islands as part of an antisubmarine warfare network guarding the mouth of the Sea of Okhotsk.
Negotiations soon resumed, however, and the two countries issued a joint declaration in October 1956 providing for the restoration of diplomatic relations. The two parties also agreed to continue negotiations for a peace treaty, including territorial issues. In addition, the Soviet Union pledged to support Japan for UN membership and waive all World War II reparations claims. The joint declaration was accompanied by a trade protocol that granted reciprocal most-favored-nation treatment and provided for the development of trade.
Japan derived few apparent gains from the normalization of diplomatic relations. The second half of the 1950s saw an increase in cultural exchanges. Soviet propaganda, however, had little success in Japan, where it encountered a longstanding antipathy stemming from the Russo-Japanese rivalry in Korea, Manchuria, and China proper in the late nineteenth century, from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5; and from the Soviet declaration of war on Japan in the last days of World War II, in violation of the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact of 1941.
The Soviet Union sought to induce Japan to abandon its territorial claims by alternating threats and persuasion. As early as 1956, it hinted at the possibility of considering the return of the Habomai Islands and Shikotan if Japan abandoned its alliance with the United States. In 1960, the Soviet government warned Japan against signing the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States, and after the treaty was signed, declared that it would not hand over the Habomai Islands and Shikotan under any circumstances unless Japan abrogated the treaty forthwith. In 1964, the Soviet Union offered to return these islands if the United States ended its military presence on Okinawa and the main islands of Japan.
Economic cooperation expanded rapidly during the 1970s, despite an often strained political relationship. The two economies were complementary, for the Soviet Union needed Japan's capital, technology, and consumer goods, while Japan needed Soviet natural resources, such as oil, gas, coal, iron ore, and timber. By 1979 overall trade had reached US$4.4 billion annually and had made Japan, after the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), the Soviet Union's most important nonsocialist trading partner.
Japanese-Soviet political relations during the 1970s were characterized by the frequent exchange of high-level visits to explore the possibility of improving bilateral relations and by repeated discussions of a peace treaty, which were abortive because neither side was prepared to yield on the territorial issue. Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko of the Soviet Union visited Tokyo in January 1972—one month before United States President Nixon's historic visit to China—to reopen ministerial-level talks after a six-year lapse. Other high-level talks, including an October 1973 meeting between Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei and Leonid I. Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, were held in Moscow during the next three years, but the deadlock on the territorial issue continued, and prospects for a settlement dimmed. Moscow began to propose a treaty of friendship and goodwill as an interim step while peace treaty talks were continued. This proposal was firmly rejected by Japan.
The signing of the Sino-Japanese peace treaty in mid-1978 was a major setback to Japanese-Soviet relations. Despite Japanese protestations that the treaty's antihegemony clause was not directed against any specific country, Moscow saw it as placing Tokyo with Washington and Beijing firmly in the anti-Soviet camp. Officially, both sides continued to express the desire for better relations, but Soviet actions served only to alarm and alienate the Japanese side. The 1980s Soviet military buildup in the Pacific was a case in point.
The 1980s saw a decided hardening in Japanese attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Japan was pressed by the United States to do more to check the expansion of Soviet power in the developing world following the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It responded by cutting off contacts beneficial to the Soviet regime and providing assistance to "front line" states, such as Pakistan and Thailand. Under Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japan worked hard to demonstrate a close identity of views with the Reagan administration on the Soviet threat. Japan steadily built up its military forces, welcomed increases in United States forces in Japan and the western Pacific, and pledged close cooperation to deal with the danger posed by Soviet power.
This economic cooperation was interrupted by Japan's decision in 1980 to participate in sanctions against the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan and by its actions to hold in abeyance a number of projects being negotiated, to ban the export of some high-technology items, and to suspend Siberian development loans. Subsequently, Japanese interest in economic cooperation with the Soviet Union waned as Tokyo found alternative suppliers and remained uncertain about the economic viability and political stability of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Japan-Soviet trade in 1988 was valued at nearly US$6 billion.
Although public and media opinion remained skeptical of the danger to Japan posed by Soviet forces in Asia, there was strong opposition in Japan to Moscow's refusal to accede to Japan's claims to the Northern Territories, known to the Japanese as Etorofu and Kunashiri, at the southern end of the Kuril Island chain, and the smaller island of Shikotan and the Habomai Islands, northeast of Hokkaidō, which were seized by the Soviets in the last days of World War II. The stationing of Soviet military forces on the islands gave tangible proof of the Soviet threat, and provocative maneuvers by Soviet air and naval forces in Japanese-claimed territory served to reinforce Japanese official policy of close identification with a firm United States-backed posture against Soviet power. In 1979, the Japanese government specifically protested a build up in Soviet forces in Etorofu, Kunashiri, and Shikotan.
The advent of the Mikhail Gorbachev regime in Moscow in 1985 saw a replacement of hard-line Soviet government diplomats who were expert in Asian affairs with more flexible spokespersons calling for greater contact with Japan. Gorbachev took the lead in promising new initiatives in Asia, but the substance of Soviet policy changed more slowly. In particular, throughout the rest of the 1980s, Soviet officials still seemed uncompromising regarding the Northern Territories, Soviet forces in the western Pacific still seemed focused on and threatening to Japan, and Soviet economic troubles and lack of foreign exchange made prospects for Japan-Soviet Union economic relations appear poor. By 1990, Japan appeared to be the least enthusiastic of the major Western-aligned developed countries in encouraging greater contacts with and assistance to the Soviet Union.
Changes in Soviet policy carried out under Gorbachev beginning in the mid-1980s, including attempts at domestic reform and the pursuit of détente with the United States and Western Europe, elicited generally positive Japanese interest, but the Japanese government held that the Soviet Union had not changed its policies on issues vital to Japan. The government stated that it would not conduct normal relations with the Soviet Union until Moscow returned the Northern Territories. The government and Japanese business leaders stated further that Japanese trade with and investment in the Soviet Union would not grow appreciably until the Northern Territories issue has been resolved.
The Soviet government also stepped up its diplomacy toward Japan with the announcement in 1990 that Gorbachev would visit Japan in 1991. Soviet officials asserted that their government would propose disarmament talks with Japan and might make more proposals on the Northern Territories in connection with the visit. Observers believed that Gorbachev might propose a package dealing with the islands, arms reduction, and economic cooperation. In January 1990, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs shifted its position, which previously had rejected negotiations with the Soviet Union on arms reductions, indicating that Japan would be willing to negotiate. Ministry officials stated that the government would formulate policy on arms reduction in close coordination with the United States.
The government of Boris Yeltsin took power in Russia in late 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved. Once again, Moscow took a stand in firm opposition to returning the disputed territories to Japan. Although Japan joined with the Group of Seven industrialized nations in providing some technical and financial assistance to Russia, relations between Japan and Russia remained cool. In September 1992, Russian president Boris Yeltsin postponed a scheduled visit to Japan. The visit finally took place in October 1993. During the visit, although various substantive issues, including the Northern Territories and the signing of a peace treaty, were discussed, no significant improvement was seen in Japan-Russia relations.
Imports from the Soviet Union declined during the first half of the 1980s, from nearly US$1.9 billion to less than US$1.5 billion, and then recovered to almost US$3.4 billion by 1990, representing modest growth for the entire period. Exports to the Soviet Union stagnated and then grew modestly, to over US$3.1 billion in 1988, before declining to US$2.6 billion in 1990.
Commercial relations with the Soviet Union also paralleled strategic developments. Japan was very interested in Siberian raw materials in the early 1970s as prices were rising and détente persisted. The challenges to détente, especially the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and falling raw material prices put strong constraints on Japan's trade and investment relations with the Soviet Union. Only after Soviet policy began to change under Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership, beginning in 1985, did Japanese trade resume its growth.
Japan's trade was also constrained by the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom), which controlled exports of strategic high technology. In 1987 the United States discovered that Toshiba Machine Tool had shipped machine tools on the restricted list to the Soviet Union, tools used to manufacture quieter submarine propellers. Although the Japanese government moved reluctantly to punish Toshiba (and the United States imposed sanctions on Toshiba exports to the United States in response), the final outcome was stronger surveillance and punishment for CoCom violations in Japan.