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date: 20 January 2021

Japanese Territorial Disputes and the Legacy of Empirefree

  • Alexis DuddenAlexis DuddenDepartment of History, University of Connecticut


Japan has territorial disputes with each of its international neighbors in the form of sovereignty contests over small islands that are shards of its once vast 20th-century empire. Recently emerging global ocean laws have taken root that make it in every nation’s interests to lay claim to exclusively controlled ocean space. As a result, a new kind of ocean imperialism is underway, compelling some nations to take maximalist approaches and others more flexible positions toward defining their countries’ respective claims. Since the 1990s, Japanese leaders have made clear that they are collectively committed to national policies and planning that reorient Japan as a maritime nation, which was not the case in the wake of the nation’s devastating losses in World War II. The question now is whether Japanese leaders will adopt a rigid definition for Japan or a more fluid one that emphasizes borderlines in the sea around it.

In August 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s total defeat in the wake of America’s nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing decimation of more than sixty other major Japanese cities, and the near annihilation of the Ryukyu Islands in the East China Sea (more commonly known as Okinawa). Equally important, Russia abrogated its neutrality pact with Japan and Soviet troops overwhelmed Japanese soldiers and settlers in the northern reaches of the nation’s empire in Manchuria, northern Korea, southern Sakhalin Island, and the Kuril Islands.

Only three years earlier, at the height of the Japanese empire, the territory that was under Tokyo’s control stretched from the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska in the northern Pacific all the way south through the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands, arcing just above Australia through New Guinea and Indonesia, heading north again through Burma (now Myanmar), and including much of coastal and central China and the northern Manchurian region before heading east again through Korea back to Japan proper. Significantly, Japan controlled the Pacific Ocean space therein, making it, as historian William Tsutsui has explained, very much a “pelagic empire,” too.1

To accomplish the capture of so much of the planet’s surface area meant that state planners and their agents—Japanese subjects by birth and colonized people as well—had directed a rapid transformation of spaces and beings during the first half of the 20th century into the Japanese empire’s places and bodies.2 In August 1945, the emperor explained his nation’s surrender during a famous radio address that was heard even in the farthest reaches of the empire: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”3 Exactly what would come next was unknown. In relatively short order, however, Japan’s total defeat meant that in addition to the several million soldiers and sailors overseas, roughly six million settlers out of a Japanese population of seventy-two million—most of whom had relocated to north China—worked their way back to Japan as best they could. The concepts of “home” and “return” were difficult for many people to grasp as they had been born and raised abroad and had never set foot in the “homeland” (as the main islands of Japan were known in relation to the overseas colonies).4 In addition, in August 1945 seven hundred thousand Japanese soldiers and civilians, many of whom had settled in the southern half of Sakhalin Island, were imprisoned by Soviet forces in Siberian gulags where a horrifically high death rate prevailed (up to sixty thousand fatalities).5

Exactly which parts of the vast Empire of Japan would be stripped from Tokyo’s control was as bewildering as the human exodus already underway. At the 1943 Cairo Conference, the United States, Britain, and China had determined that Japan would lose all territories acquired since 1914—specifically all of the islands in the Pacific that it had come to control. On August 15, 1945, The New York Times published correspondent James Reston’s article based on these agreements. Reston explained that “the Allied terms of surrender will . . . deprive (Japan) of 80 percent of the territory . . . she held when she attacked Pearl Harbor.”6 Other territory that would cease being under Japanese control included the occupied parts of China, Manchuria, and the entirety of Korea and Taiwan and their related islands, the latter of which had become pieces of the Japanese empire before 1914 but had been annexed by force. As a result, during the years of the Allied occupation of Japan (1945–1952) an area that once resembled a gigantic octopus spanning much of the Asia-Pacific region was reduced to the seahorse-shaped nation now known on maps of the world. The totality of this has yet to be fully absorbed by some people in Japan, however.7 Different understandings of this situation currently manifest in the territorial disputes that Japan has with each of its international neighbors in the form of sovereignty contests over small islands that Russia, North and South Korea, and China and Taiwan also claim as their own—and have done since 1945.8

At the same time, a second equally important historical phenomenon is taking place that dovetails with these historical legacies and further complicates matters: the advent of a new form of ocean empire building, much of which results from the changing meaning of islands everywhere. In broad terms, an island’s value has long been important for what lies above the waterline as a place of escape or exile, treasure or death. Most of all, for people living on islands, the geographic reality of being surrounded by the sea has afforded a natural security barrier should rulers determine to sequester themselves and their people. By no means ever a completely “locked” nation—as Herman Melville would famously describe Japan in Moby-Dick—nowhere were the security possibilities afforded an island truer than for Japan during its early modern Tokugawa era (1603–1868). Official policy mandated that Japanese could leave Japan, yet to return was a crime punishable by death. On top of this, foreign visitors were limited to Chinese, Korean, Ryukyuan, and Dutch envoys and traders, all of whom could come ashore only at fixed entry ports, mainly in the south far away from the capital (then called “Edo” and now “Tokyo”).9 These envoys would prove significant over time in terms of creating a window onto the otherwise distant and greater world through books and objects and themselves—all of which ultimately challenged the Tokugawa shoguns’ grip on power. From a strictly security standpoint, Russian incursions would cause the greatest stress from the north. Japan’s shoguns were able to keep them at bay through a strategy that boiled down to what the famous historian George Alexander Lensen described as a policy of “It would be better to have no relations whatsoever.”10

In 1994, many of these long-standing truisms about islands dramatically shifted when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) went into force. With it, UNCLOS provisions have transformed islands everywhere into places that possess the sea around them, rather than the other way around. Put differently—and in terms of national interests—islands are no longer simply two-dimensional terrains rising from the water (as viewed on the horizon line that is). Instead islands are bathymetric spots that delineate the ocean and seabed areas that radiate around them as national territory. For some, securing rigid definitions to ensure the largest possible claim in the sea is the surest course. At the same time, UNCLOS provides for joint resource development schemes for international disputes over islands or other features, such as reefs. With such provisions, nations can harvest resources provided that they agree to set aside maximalist assertions.

Japan consists of more than 6,800 islands, rocks, reefs, and shoals, although most of today’s 127 million Japanese live on the country’s four main islands—with the largest island’s name (Honshu) literally meaning “mainland.”11 The nation’s outer islands and reefs provide the cartographic points with which the government of Japan is currently delineating a new shape of the country. Japan is not at all unique in pursuing policies that take advantage of UNCLOS provisions. Such pursuit, moreover, is in any nation’s national interests. Many coastal states—archipelagoes like Japan and the Philippines as well as those with partial ocean borders such as Italy and the United States—now define their distant offshore islands as outer baselines in order to lay exclusive claim to their nearby waters. Yet part and parcel of this change is the inclusion of the ocean itself as national land. Japan lies at the center of this monumental shift even if many Japanese are not yet aware of it (or anybody else for that matter). Japan’s leaders, however, demonstrate profound understanding of what is going on, and have made significant policy developments since the beginning of the 21st century to align the nation with these changes.

Shards of an Earlier Empire Discomfit Plans for a New One

The tensions involved in redefining Japan’s place in the sea today are multilayered, involving competing issues such as northeast Asia’s inflamed “history wars.” This moniker refers to several hot-button issues such as the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and the Japanese military’s system of state-sponsored sexual slavery. Neither of these cases is technically related to the region’s island disputes, but they can flare up in ways that quickly devolve into diplomatic standoffs and popular street protests that also include territorial contests. The architecture of the US-Japan Security Agreement weighs heavily on how the Japanese government fashions its military posture in the region and globally. Moreover, natural resource claims are fundamental given Japan’s heavy reliance on imported fuel and other materials. Finally, and relating back to the regional history debates, within Japan substantially different interpretations of modern Japanese history inform how Japanese themselves consider their nation’s reemergence as an ocean power.

In the background is the 20th-century history of maritime Japan and the nation’s devastating 1945 defeat, which at the time the Imperial Army blamed on the Imperial Navy and the Navy on the Army. In Post-war Japan as a Sea Power, security analyst Alessio Patalano compellingly underscores how memories of Imperial Japan’s once great naval prowess and subsequent staggering loss continue to inform policy planning for contemporary Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces (by the end of World War II, for example, Japan’s destroyer force was halved).12 For decades after World War II a social consensus held that Japan’s island nature caused the nation’s 1945 defeat, and policies and ideologies publicly focused on anything but the ocean. The salaryman, behind his staid office desk and commuting on a crowded train home to a small space, for example, became the iconic Japanese male. Since the turn of the 21st century, however, renewed commitment to Japan’s maritime disposition as definitional to the nation’s future strength has regained traction, with coast guard cadets and Maritime Self-Defense Force sailors emerging as new cultural heroes. There is pride in the idea Japan’s territorial oceans coupled with its land mass would make it the world’s sixth- or seventh-largest country, and many are pleased that an elongated measurement of the nation’s coastline would make Japan one-and-a-half times larger than the United States and twice as large as China.13

UNCLOS has introduced two key legal mechanisms for claiming nationally exclusive control over resources in the oceans: exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and the regime of the extended continental shelf. Together, these delineated areas in the sea that international norms designate by limit lines grant a nation sole control over natural resources such as fish in the water and oil or rare earth minerals in the seabed crust or under the ocean floor. Countries may also share, lease, or sell these privileges for profit. Taken together, these oceanic boundaries can extend a nation into its surrounding water by as much as three hundred and fifty miles beyond its baseline at the state’s littoral edge and means that its territory can begin again at the shoreline of its outer islands. Landlocked countries such as Mongolia and Austria are out of luck now that the ocean itself can conceptually be understood as a different form of national territory. Archipelagic and island states such as the Philippines, Japan, and New Zealand find themselves greatly expanded into the sea. The United States, France, and England also benefit because of their possession of distant offshore islands—Hawaii, Guam, French Polynesia, Martinique, the British Virgin Islands, and Pitcairn, among others. This allows them to claim exclusive ocean space around these islands as areas of “national” privilege (UNCLOS means that nearly half of the territory of the United States currently lies underwater through possession of islands such as Midway). In cases of a sovereignty disputes, such as those over the Åland Islands between Sweden and Finland or Machias Seal Island between the United States and Canada, UNCLOS allows for “Joint Development Agreements” provided that the disputants agree that designating ultimate sovereignty is counterproductive to maintaining regional relations and resource development.14 UNCLOS is clear, however, that it will make no determination over sovereignty. That remains the responsibility of other organs of international law, require historic precedent to make such a determination. Therefore, history and law now find themselves at odds in Japan’s claims of full sovereignty over islands that its neighbors also claim.

For Japan much of the new oceanic space the nation claims is entirely uncontested—most particularly the area surrounding the Ogasawara Islands one thousand kilometers due south of Tokyo. Since 2014 the government of Japan has inaugurated an aspirational new policy of “inherent territoriality” with which the country would lay claim not only to these unchallenged places but also to the ones that its neighbors equally claim as their own. With official maps, government websites, and efforts at public education and diplomacy, Japan now publicly asserts control over these islands, awaiting the international community’s accession to its claims.

This draws scrutiny to the policy because the bulk of Japan’s claims are entirely unproblematic. Moreover, although the few islands that Japan contests with Russia, North and South Korea, China and Taiwan add more in terms of oceanic area to the vast space and amount of territories that Japan can claim without issue, the Japanese government’s recent hardline stance undermines the nation’s economic and security interests by stymieing resource development in the disputed areas and causes unnecessary ill will among Japan and its neighbors.15

To be clear, during the first half of the 20th century Tokyo controlled each of the islands in question as pieces of its sprawling Asia-Pacific empire. As Allied officials prepared the definition of Japanese “territory” for the 1952 San Francisco Treaty that would formalize the end of World War II, Japanese officials demanded the inclusion of the islands that are currently contested as part of the country’s national territory, together with a number of other islands that Japan no longer formally seeks such as the southern portion of Sakhalin Island, Ulleungdo, and Jeju-do. The San Francisco Treaty is integral to the confusion and makes the United States—its chief architect—elemental to the obfuscations and omissions concerning clear-cut sovereignty over these very small pieces of land in Northeast Asia.

In legal terms, Japan’s 2014 assertion of “inherency” over the smallest fragments of empire it failed to hold on to means that the government of Japan views these islands as integral to Japan’s national being. For historians, the notion also introduces the idea that these spaces have always and forever been Japanese—which, in the case of these islands, could not be further from the history involved. Finally, it is only since 2014 that the Japanese government has linked one territorial dispute to another through this policy. Any attempt by a Japanese diplomat to negotiate with a Chinese diplomat over the dispute in the East China Sea would risk losing Japan’s claims to Korea, because both Japan and Korea are tied together in the same policy vision for Japan. In turn, all of this draws attention to the particular worldview that undergirds this view within Japan.

The East China Sea

Japan’s “inherency” policy garners most attention in the East China Sea and centers on uninhabited islands that Japanese know as the Senkaku and Chinese and Taiwanese know as the Diaoyutai.16 Many analysts expect a major military confrontation to erupt over control for them and this conflict underscores common contours and shared histories among all of Japan’s disputes.

In 1972, the United States returned the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) to Japan after denying Tokyo’s request for them in 1952. The United States still stations more than half of the fifty thousand American troops it maintains in Japan on these islands. During the 1971–1972 reversion negotiations, the territorial dispute between Japan and China and Taiwan over the contested islands that Taiwan also claims as “inherent” territory began to ignite broader popular interest in no small part because of the 1968 discovery of a substantial oil and natural gas field surrounding them.17 Interest notably included what would become a now famous 1981 Harvard Law School dissertation by Taiwan’s future president Ma Ying-jeou as well as numerous forceful landing attempts by nationalist groups in small boats on all sides.18

Backing up a bit, between 1895 and 1945 Ishigaki Island of the Yaeyama Island group in the southern part of the Ryukyu chain administered what that era’s maps collectively named the “Senkaku.” Yet, from the moment of the U.S. invasion of the entire East China Sea region in April 1945 until its 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japan, the islands were under US sovereign command. American fighter pilots used them for target practice (as some of the islands in the group are still used today). Following reversion, since 1972 international maps of the region—such as the United States’ 2016 CIA map—have indicated that Japan has “administrative rights” over these islands, a legal term that denotes a step below the full sovereignty that Japan’s policy now publicly asserts. During the Ryukyu Island reversion negotiations between US and Japanese officials, Washington made clear that as far as it understood ownership of these uninhabited islands, Taiwan’s claims to them were as valid as Japan’s.19 Instead of the full sovereignty Japan sought, therefore, the United States granted Japan “administrative rights” over these rocks via Ishigaki Island’s municipal control in order to forestall disagreement and also to serve American military, economic, and power interests in the region. The United States has guaranteed these same rights ever since the passage of Article V of the Security Alliance with Japan:

Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.20

By leaving hanging the question of full ownership, American policy planners ensured that Japan’s interactions with China and Taiwan would have a necessary dependency on Washington’s expedient determinations. This is also true for Japan’s territorial problems with Korea and Russia. In the meantime, the ambiguity renders the islands ripe for all sorts of political machinations, thus obscuring some of their more compelling modern histories following Japan’s 1879 forcible annexation of the Ryukyu kingdom, which at the time launched Japan’s formal expansion into the East China Sea. Eventually, Japanese trading aspirations along the Chinese coast combined with Japanese and Chinese competition for privilege in the court in Korea devolved into a full-scale war between Japan and China that erupted in August 1894 and lasted until the Qing government sought peace in February 1895. Fought predominantly to the north of this East China Sea area—in and around the Yellow Sea and the Liaodong Peninsula—this war’s battles would lead to Japan’s 1895 outright capture of Taiwan and its adjacent islands, which was confirmed with the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the war.

Currently, the Japanese government argues that this history has nothing to do with the sovereignty dispute over the islands, maintaining that a decade before declared hostilities erupted these islands were “no man’s land” (terra nullius), and in 1885 the Japanese government began to conduct surveys of them. Additionally, energetic private entrepreneurship led Ishigaki Island resident Koga Tatsushiro to take over these rocks as his own for a fish-drying and albatross-processing factory that a confidential cabinet decision legitimated in January 1895. In such reasoning, Tokyo maintains that the islands are “inherently Japanese.” The Taiwanese and Chinese governments completely disagree and have brought forth counter evidence. This evidence ranges from questionable claims about rare herb–growing farms to remarkably clear 18th- and 19th-century Japanese maps on which the color that portrays the islands aligns with the color of the Ryukyu Kingdom or Taiwan or mainland China, none of which was under Japanese control in terms of power emanating from Tokyo at the time the maps were made.21 As such, contemporary political jockeying occludes the context surrounding how the islands technically became Japanese territory through a modern war of imperial expansion and how they fell away from Japan’s destroyed empire through its utter defeat.

For centuries, as maritime historians such as Hamashita Takeshi demonstrate through their detailed descriptions of trade routes and commercial endeavor in the East China Sea, fishermen long built temporary huts on rocks in areas they fished that were far from home.22 In the late 19th century, new Japanese property laws allowed people—including fishermen—to make more exclusive claims. Shacks became more permanent structures that could evolve into private leaseholds, which is what ultimately occurred for Koga’s business. Before Koga’s claim could be formalized, however, Japan engaged China in 1894 and 1895 in what many regard as Japan’s first modern international conflict. Put differently, the war between Japan and China did not center on the islands now in dispute, yet Japan’s broader strategy at the time reveals the nation’s interests in harnessing the entire East China Sea region, which policy planners ultimately achieved by stringing together numerous islands throughout these waters, including the ones contested now.

Japanese officials were confident of their nation’s victory over China shortly before the war actually ended. On January 14, 1895, Tokyo’s Home Ministry passed a secret cabinet resolution that named the “Senkaku” as Japanese territory and granted Koga Tatsushiro formal permission for his desired leasehold. Therefore, to argue that the war with China had nothing to do with Japan gaining control over these islands, as Japan’s “inherency” policy attempts to do, is not simply spurious reasoning. It intentionally disconnects these fragmentary components of the much larger endeavor of empire building from the reality of that historical moment. Moreover, in asserting these islands’ “inherency” to the Japanese nation, the government of Japan would appear to erase the roughly three decades that these rocks spent under American occupation as well as Tokyo’s repeatedly demonstrated need for the United States to recognize Japan’s “administration” of them.

Korean and Russian Dimensions

The sharply pointed volcanic outcrop that Koreans know as Dokdo and Japanese call Takeshima holds one of the world’s most unusual security distinctions. If Tokyo pushes Washington to support its 2014 “inherency” policy, the United States would face a choice of siding with one ally against another—Japan or South Korea—because it is obliged under separate agreements to defend this territory for each. South Korean police have lived on the island since 1954 and these islets are the first piece of Korean territory that Japan seized in the early 20th century in a move that prefigured the 1910 annexation of the country. Today, when visitors arrive to nearby Ulleungdo (from which they embark by high-speed ferry to Dokdo), they are greeted with the sign: “The Loss of Dokdo Is the Loss of Korea.” Perhaps the thorniest of Japan’s island problems, much of the complication rests with America’s post-1945 involvement in determining ultimate sovereignty. Similar to ways in which the Senkaku requires Washington’s central place in Northeast Asia’s security calculus, American claims that the sovereignty contest between Korea and Japan is strictly a matter for the countries concerned obfuscates US responsibility in helping to create the problem. To this end, the US government labels these islands on official maps with their 19th-century European name—the Liancourt Rocks, after a French whaler that nearly shipwrecked on them in 1849.

A peaceful example of how this confusing situation can play out publicly happened in late July 2008 when, with astonishing lack of knowledge, a small branch of the US government called the US Board on Geographic Names reversed fifty years of officially orchestrated avoidance concerning this island issue. Washington decided that the United States would henceforth consider them of “undesignated sovereignty,” generating midnight phone calls at the highest levels in Washington to reverse this reversal and prompting South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to pause with President George W. Bush for photographers when he visited Seoul a month later in front a map with the island clearly depicted as Korean territory.

The Korean government asserts that these rocks have been part of Korean territory for over a thousand years, making their claims with official documents and numerous maps, including a 19th-century map recently discovered in a private collection in Japan that includes the islands in Korean space.23 For its part, the Japanese government’s position has recently morphed from a decades-long insistence that the islands are Japanese territory because the 1952 San Francisco Treaty did not state that they were not to today’s assertion of “inherency” based on Japan’s 1905 takeover of them (which, like the Senkaku dispute, summons “terra nullius” as justification).

In the 1952 legal document that ended World War II, the Allied nations—particularly the United States—commanded responsibility for determining what would constitute Japan as such, which they did in Chapter II, Article 2 of the San Francisco Treaty: “Territory.” As noted, the Ryukyu Islands remained under American occupation for another twenty years, keeping the East China Sea dispute between Japan and China and Taiwan dormant until 1972 when Okinawa reverted to Japanese control. In Korea’s case, however, the first clause of this section of the treaty made clear that “Japan, recognizing the independence of Korea, renounces all right, title, and claim to Korea, including the islands of Quelpart, Port Hamilton, and Dagelet” (today known as Jeju, Geomundo, and Ulleungdo respectively).24

The island that Koreans know as Dokdo—which is visible on clear days from Ulleungdo, forty-seven miles to the west of Dokdo—was of interest to Japanese and Korean fishermen throughout their long history of fishing its waters (Japan’s Oki Islands are eighty-five miles to the southeast of Dokdo). And early in the 20th century the Japanese government took a different kind of interest in both Dokdo and Ulleungdo. In the winter of 1904, Japan severed diplomatic ties with Russia and began to prepare its troops and ships for war. What would ultimately result in victory for Japan’s emergent military and empire, the battles involved in the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War largely took place in and around the Korean Peninsula and northeastern areas of China. An important telecommunications station was established on Dokdo, which the Japanese government retained once victory over Russia was secured. In February 1905, following the Japanese government’s formal incorporation of these islands into Japanese territory (which Korea did not protest until the following year because no one knew it had happened) Tokyo granted formal permission to Nakai Yozaburo to establish a permanent sea-lion hunting outpost. This enriched Nakai and ultimately led to the extinction this species of sea lion.

Notwithstanding this island’s utilitarian history, one could wonder whether Dokdo is simply so small that the San Francisco Treaty’s authors did not feel the need to list it among the territories that Japan would forfeit (Korea has more than three thousand small, offshore islands, yet only three are specifically named in the document). Yet this is not what happened. Japanese and Korean officials lobbied the Allied framers of the San Francisco Treaty throughout the drafting process. Japan demanded Jeju and Ulleungdo, among other islands such as Okinawa and the Kurils, but did not receive them. Moreover, several drafts of the treaty listed this island’s name.25 Simply put, other considerations won the day. When the San Francisco Treaty system came into effect, the contested islands were valuable territory in America’s security architecture during the 1950–1953 Korean War. Dokdo was a platform for the US tactical presence vis-a-vis the Korean Peninsula, which was not at all what Japanese argued to justify their claims. If nothing else, the contingent nature of America’s final determination over these islands’ status—ultimately decided by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—reveals Washington’s own anxiety about shaping the region’s future.26 The American formula for these islands underscores the ad hoc manner in which the United States would determine sovereignty issues in the midst of delineating Japanese territory; that is, leave matters intentionally ambiguous to the point of avoiding them altogether yet requiring American presence into the future.

In this regard, the disjuncture between what the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers General Douglas MacArthur viewed as American interests in Asia following the collapse of the Japanese empire and onset of the Cold War revealed a glaring perception gap about priorities and history in regard to Japanese fears of Soviet designs. Similar to their early modern forbears centuries earlier, Japanese officials were most concerned about the northern threat centered on the Southern Kuril Islands (what Japanese would come to refer to collectively as the Northern Territories) and the southern half of Sakhalin Island (Japan’s former colony of Karafuto, 1905–1945), located respectively around Japan’s northern frontier in Hokkaido. These territories were entirely under Japanese control during the first half of the 20th century and were places of intense violence and fear for the nearly twenty thousand Japanese settlers on the Kuril Islands and the four hundred thousand colonists on the southern portion of Sakhalin at the end of World War II when Soviet troops dislodged them. The Japanese government no longer formally seeks the return of its former piece of Sakhalin, which makes the current “inherency” claims to Dokdo illogical at best since they became Japanese territory during the same 1905 moment.

At the same time, many Japanese continue to demand four of the southern Kurils in language expressed in numerous signs along Hokkaido’s northeastern coastline: “The Return of These Ancestral Lands Is the Fervent Prayer of All Japanese.” The indigenous Ainu, Nivkh, or Orok people first encountered Japanese in the 18th and 19th centuries. With the decimation of their societies nearly complete by the 1910s, during the expanding years of the Japanese empire in the 1920s and 1930s some of the world’s largest fish-canning operations centered on islands that Japanese colonists knew as Habomai, Suisho, Shikotan, and Etorofu. In late November 1941, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku departed Hittokappu Bay on Etorofu where he had gathered to fuel the fleet that would attack Pearl Harbor on December 7. And despite President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1945 promise to Josef Stalin of these islands in exchange for Soviet entry into the war against Japan, many Japanese continue to believe these islands are theirs. Similar to the other disputes, much of the confusion arises from a fuzzily defined notion of the Kurils in the American-led terms of surrender, which, as historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa explains, meant that in August 1945 “Stalin faced a difficult challenge: he had to occupy the islands as quickly as possible while carefully monitoring the American reaction. To achieve his goal, he used both skillful diplomacy and ruthless military action.”27

In fact, during the American occupation of Japan (1945–1952), US officials in Tokyo took Japan’s claims to these northern islands very seriously, even if the San Francisco Treaty ultimately designated them as Soviet territory. Nonetheless, the possibility of a Russian invasion of Japan from or through these islands made them subject to political deals made in Washington and between Washington and Moscow that sacrificed Japanese claims. For example, Secretary of the US Army Kenneth C. Royall’s off-the-record comments at the American Embassy in Tokyo on February 6, 1949, caused great distress among the diplomatic community. Visiting briefly from Washington, Royall emphasized that:

in case of war with the Soviet Union, or even during the period of the so-called cold war, Japan is, in fact, a liability, and that it might be more profitable from the viewpoint of United States policy to pull out all troops from Japan.28

Understandably, the American political staff in Tokyo spent considerable effort after these remarks became public to assuage their Japanese colleagues that the United States was not in fact going to abandon Japan.

President Harry Truman’s special representative to the treaty process, John Foster Dulles, kept abundant correspondence, and his records and those of other diplomats make clear that the final map would not fully commit to naming who owned what—for reasons ranging from real and perceived threats of Communist takeover of the entire area, including Japan, to a desire to cement the need for US power in the region. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee was displeased with this gamble, especially in terms of the Russian island contest. On January 17, 1952, Senator Tom Connally wrote to Dulles that the final formula was “vague and contained the germ of future conflicting claims.” As James Brown thoughtfully observes, “The sense is therefore that Japanese-Russian relations remain subject to the watchful eye of Japan’s American chaperone. As a consequence, the relationship is vulnerable to downturns in ties between Washington and Moscow.”29 In short, any suggestion by Tokyo that the islands belong to Japan is greeted by Moscow with a shrug and assumption that a US military base would appear on one of the islands as soon as it reverted to Japan.


The competing threads involved in Japan’s territorial disputes feed into the question of the purpose of Japan’s new policy of “inherent territoriality,” which by definition only the United States can realize for Japan. Twenty-first-century efforts to reorient Japan’s resources and planning into the sea are logical and important. On July 20, 2007, Japan’s Basic Act on Ocean Policy went into force. Centered originally in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism—Japan’s second largest bureaucracy after the Ministry of Defense—its minister and the prime minister coordinate measures to represent the nation’s merchant marine together with the Japan Coast Guard and other interests such as offshore oil drilling. The first plan went into effect in March 2008, and by 2013 legislators significantly enhanced policing and prosecuting powers for the coast guard around Japan’s offshore boundary islands. Significant debate continues, however, over the coast guard’s coordination with the Maritime Self Defense Forces (Japan’s navy), yet it has become abundantly clear that defining sovereignty over the islands that Japan disputes with neighboring countries is increasingly important to the administration’s vision of the nation. The Office of the Cabinet Secretariat’s recently established Office of Policy Planning and Coordination on Territory and Sovereignty sponsors cabinet-level study groups responsible for “initiatives on enhancing territorial integrity.”30

The Basic Ocean Policy realized the idea of Japan as a maritime nation and as a central narrative—not to mention law—with which to shape Japan for the 21st century. The recent foreign policy to rigidly inscribe the Japanese nation in the sea is related but it is not necessarily the same thing, nor are its aspirations a foregone conclusion. As some Japanese political and opinion leaders showcase the island disputes at the center of national policy, they bring with them sharply divergent understandings of the pre-1945 histories that made them Japanese territory in the first place. As a result, politically inflexible efforts by some factions to describe the nation in rigid terms are on a collision course with more fluid understandings of Japan’s place in Asia’s past, present, and, most important, its future.

For some, the recently published understanding of the nation’s “inherent” territory is at the core of Japan’s national being. Ironically, such insistence on a definition that transcends temporal and spatial specificity denies the Japanese history that brought these islands into the Japanese empire in the first place, as well as how they “fell away” from it, as it were. Within Japan, in April 2012 the Liberal Democratic Party released a draft proposal for a revised constitution that offers a helpful way of grasping the islands’ value to this particular worldview. The 2014 policy for the first time internationally broadcast a policy that tied each territorial dispute to the others, collectively naming them a matter of “inherency” rather than an issue of “Japanese-Korean” relations or “Japanese-Chinese” relations, for example. This effort seeks to strengthen broader hardline claims that the era of empire is inconsequential to the islands’ “being” Japanese. Striking features of the 2012 constitutional draft include the redefinition of the emperor, the role of women, an obligation to honor national symbols, a preamble that denies the universalisms definitional to Japan’s current constitution. For the first time, this proposal would constitutionally define Japanese territory (領土‎) by obliging citizens to defend it.31

The notion of territory articulated in these constitutional proposals synchronizes with the current Japanese administration’s broader policy of “inherency,” which at once denies Japanese history and requires the international community’s agreement to such a worldview. It is not “anti-Japanese” to draw attention to these trends; they are but one vision for the future of the nation. This vision would erase the history of the place of the Japanese empire in modern East Asia and foster consideration of more open-ended definitions for Japan in the sea and more fluid understandings of the future based on more open-ended understandings of the past. In this vein, instead of “inherent territory,” it is key to the possibility of a coherent path forward to recognize those in Japan—and elsewhere—who see “borderlines” with which to define a Japan open to productive and peaceful engagement with its neighbors. Although competing visions exist for how Japan should move forward, it is not possible to divide these camps along simple lines. Japan is a maritime nation regardless of how the debate proceeds. There are fundamental issues with the hardline vision for Japan’s future. While the United States has repeatedly clarified that it upholds Japan’s administration of islands in the East China Sea, it does not make similar assertions about islands that Japan contests with South Korea in the Sea of Japan/East Sea or with Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk. Nonetheless, the increasingly provocative assertions of control over these contested islands, as well as the Okinotori Reef in the south, will claim the most rigidly defined space possible as Japanese territory. Because these assertions directly implicate US assurances of security protection, they raise the question of the policy’s goals.

Primary Sources

David Rumsey’s online archive of historical maps and cartographic material includes the Vaugondy Empire of Japan map.

University of Minnesota Libraries, Matteo Ricci, Li Zhizhao, and Zhang Wentao, Map of the World 1602, online.

Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan. Map collection.

Sea of Japan Naming Dispute”: compilation of numerous maps.

Further Reading

  • Baird, Cory. “Japan Opens Permanent Exhibition on Territorial Disputes Over Senkaku and Takeshima.” Japan Times, January 25, 2018.
  • Barshay, Andrew. The Gods Left First: Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945–56. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Brown, James D. J., and Jeff Kingston, eds. Japan’s Foreign Relations in Asia. New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • Dudden, Alexis. “The Shape of Japan to Come.” New York Times, January 16, 2015.
  • Hamashita Takeshi. China, East Asia, and the Global Economy: Regional and Historical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Hara, Kimie. Cold War Frontiers in the Asia-Pacific: Divided Territories in the San Francisco System. London: Routledge, 2012.
  • Hara, Kimie. “Untying the Kurillian Knot: Toward an Åland-Inspired Solution for the Russo-Japanese Territorial Dispute.” Asia-Pacific Journal 7, no. 24 (2009): Article 2.
  • Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
  • Komamura, Keigo. “Constitution and Narrative in the Age of Crisis in Japanese Politics.” Washington International Law Journal 26, no. 1 (2017): 75–97.
  • Kwon Mee-yoo. “New Historical Map Found in Japan Marks Dokdo as Korean Territory.” Korea Times, August 2, 2017.
  • Kyodo Wire Service. “Japan, China to Set Up Contact System to Avoid Sea, Air Clashes.” Japan Today, December 6, 2017.
  • Lensen, George Alexander. “Early Russo-Japanese Relations.” Far Eastern Quarterly 10 (1951): 3–37.
  • Matsumoto Kenichi. Kaigansen no Rekishi. Tokyo: Mishimasha, 2009.
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan. “Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan.” January 1960.
  • Miyoshi Masahiro. “Seabed Petroleum in the East China Sea: Law of the Sea Issues and the Prospects for Joint Development.” Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2005.
  • Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. Re-inventing Japan: Nation, Culture, Identity. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Murata, Tadayoshi. The Origins of Japanese-Chinese Territorial Dispute: Using Historical Records to Study the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands Issue. Singapore: World Scientific Publishers, 2016.
  • Nakano, Koichi. “The Death of Liberalism in Japan.” New York Times, October 15, 2017.
  • Office of the Cabinet Secretariat of Japan, Office of Policy Planning and Coordination on Territory and Sovereignty. “Japanese Territory.” April 2017.
  • Oguma Eiji. A Genealogy of “Japanese” Self-Images. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2002.
  • Patalano, Alessio. Post-war Japan as a Sea Power. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
  • Reston, James. “Terms will Reduce Japan to Kingdom Perry Visited.” New York Times, August 15, 1945.
  • Samuels, Richard. Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.
  • “Text of Hirohito’s Radio Rescript.” New York Times, August 15, 1945.
  • Toby, Ronald. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
  • Tsutsui, William M. “The Pelagic Empire: Reconsidering Japanese Expansion.” In Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, edited by Ian Jared Miller, 21–38. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013.
  • United Nations. Treaty of Peace with Japan. UN Treaty Series.
  • US Department of State. “The Acting Political Adviser in Japan (Sebald) to the Secretary of State.” Foreign Relations of the United States. Vol. 7, Part 2. Washington, DC: Office of the Historian, 1949.
  • US Department of State. “Memorandum of Conversation, by the Chief of the Division of Northeast Asian Affairs (Bishop).” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1949, The Far East and Australasia. Vol. 7, Part 2. Washington, DC: Office of the Historian, 1949.
  • Watt, Lori. When Empire Comes Home: Repatriation and Reintegration in Postwar Japan. Cambridge, U.K.: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Yabuki Susumu and Mark Selden. “The Origins of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Dispute between China, Taiwan and Japan.” Asia-Pacific Journal 12, no. 2 (2014): Article 3.